Recent events in New York have drawn attention to government transparency, especially after independent citizens and journalists who had cause to request various records were met by statutory restrictions, statutory denial, and even blatant refusal from some record custodians.
A noteworthy example was the refusal of the New York Police Department to release records regarding officers’ misconduct to media agencies. The court overruled the denial in October 2020 based on the legislative repeal of Section 50a of the New York Civil Rights Law. In the ruling, the presiding judge deemed the police department’s denial as unconstitutional and stressed the need for government transparency. However, this is not the end of record denials and the New York Law Journal wrote about the continued shrouding of public records in some cases.
How then can independent citizens and journalists exercise the right conferred by the New York Freedom of Information Law and the Public Officers Law? First, a good understanding of what the state classifies as public records is necessary. Then, the individual must know the appropriate process and policies for requesting a record of interest.
Public records in New York refer to any information created, maintained, or reproduced by or for the use of a government agency, regardless of the physical form. These records include but are not limited to statewide vital records, property records, driving history, and inmate records. However, due to privacy concerns, and potential threats to national security, New York public records laws exempt certain records and information from unauthorized public access.
For the records that are available to the public, however, there is no uniform approach to requesting records because custodians typically make their protocols for public access. Knowledge of these specific protocols is important to individuals who are unable to access records of interest from electronic repositories.
Starting with arrest records, which are records created by local authorities when an offender or suspect is brought into custody. While these records are comparably easier to access, it is important to know that arrest records are not absolute proof of guilt, unlike the criminal history record. Both of these records detail an individual’s stint with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, but a common misconception is that the New York State Police maintains criminal history records. The Division of Criminal Justice Services is, in fact, the designated custodian of criminal records. Interest individuals may preview the contents of a criminal history record in this sample and rap sheet guide.
Generally, to make a FOIL request for a criminal history report, the individual must submit a FOIL request. Interested individuals will find these systematic instructions for FOIL requests useful for online, mail, and in-person requests. Bear in mind that you have to pay $95.00 as an administrative fee that covers the costs of retrieving and copying the records you seek.
Meanwhile, the New York State Police (NYSP) keeps investigation reports on incidents involving individuals. Anyone can request an investigation report, but complete investigation reports are only accessible to the individuals named on the records and their legal representatives, who must show proof of representation. For public requesters, the police protect privacy by either denying the request or redacting sensitive information on the record. To request an investigation report, send a completed request form or serve a subpoena upon the state police. The individual must attach a $30.00 fee addressed to the Superintendent of State Police and submit the request in a self-addressed stamped envelope at
1220 Washington Avenue, Building 22
Albany, New York
When an individual is convicted and sentenced to jail or released under parole, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) will maintain records on such an inmate or parolee. Interested members of the public can easily access inmate and parolee records with the search tools on the DOCCS homepage. Inmate lookup is possible with parameters like name and birth date. Likewise, you can look up a parolee with their name, birth date, or inmate ID as keywords.
For court records, the New York Unified Court System pools information on criminal, civil, and family cases from all 62 counties in New York. The eCourts portal is useful for getting an overview of case information and the nature of filings. However, to obtain court documents regarding a case, you must contact the records custodian directly, i.e., the clerk of courts or county clerk. The New York Judiciary provides systematic instructions for obtaining court records and administrative records under the freedom of information law. If you seek the address and contact information of the court that maintains the records you need, use the New York court locator. Visits to the clerk’s office must be during business hours; you must also provide court staff with the necessary information, i.e., the names of the parties involved, date of filing, case number, docket number, or the name of the presiding judge.
Unlike the records discussed above, vital records are not subject to the freedom of information law. Thus, only requesters who meet statutory criteria and can provide adequate documentation can request these records of life events that occurred in the state. The central repository of vital records is the New York Department of Health, which also published instructions on how to obtain various vital records. Meanwhile, for other kinds of records created and maintained by the Department of Health – i.e., apart from vital records – you may submit a FOIL request for those records. It is also important to know that the Department will request you to complete an application form specific to the record and cover the cost of reproducing such a record. Requesters must also provide a government-issued photo I.D., court order, and proof of legal representation if applicable. Contrary to this, the Department will deny your requests.
The central theme of the Freedom of Information and Public Officers Law – or any regulation that mandates the release of public records in New York – is that citizens ought to be informed on government activities and records on the activities of individuals that influence public affairs. The office of the Secretary of State is designated custodian of documents related to businesses, state and local laws. These include oaths of office, trademarks, certificates of incorporation, tax liens, and financing statements under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code. To obtain these records, submit a FOIL request to the office of the Secretary of State.
Armed with the knowledge of the process and policies regarding the request for various records in New York, you should find it easier to find records of interest. If a record custodian denies your request under the FOIL or Public Officers Law, this may be due to your clerical error or because such records are sealed. The custodian will generally provide reasons for the denial. For the former, you just need to correct the clerical error and send back your requests. If there is no official form for the record you are requesting, you may use the free letter-generator developed by the Student Press Law Center.
For the latter kind of denial, however, you may send a direct appeal to the custodian and negotiate a means of accessing the record that does not cause the custodian to violate state laws and privacy concerns. The last resort is to submit a petition to the local court for an order to lift a statutory seal or stay a previous order to seal.