Public records serve a number of purposes for the American public, from crucial tasks like to keeping public officials and their offices in check to personal research like genealogy or school projects. In every state, requesting public records is approached in a slightly different manner, though for the most part the processes are parallel. What varies more, really, are the actual types of documents that make up the public record in each state. The definitions of public record are always established by way of a specific law. In New York, this is known as the Freedom of Information Law. You can read the entire FOIL at the New York Department of State.
New York’s laws are fairly liberal in their scope of public records, allowing you to get at a lot of different types of documents. According to FOIL, you can access any records associated with an “agency” in New York. An agency is defined as any state or city level board, office, or organization. This includes public authorities like the public fire and police departments, and investigative reports and audits associated with any of these organizations are also fair game for public records requesters.
Despite FOIL’s relatively wide range of documents, you may still come up against some resistance in requesting a record. While there are legitimate exemptions, make sure that you aren’t being bullied; things like who you are (identification), the format the original record was in (media type), and the format you’re requesting (within reason) are not relevant and should not have an effect on whether or not an office gives you their records.
Even so, some legitimate exemptions may be at play. In New York, the following are legitimate reasons for an agency to refuse to turn over part or all of a document.
- A clear and unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.
- Any record which is made exempt under a separate law, which will then overwrite FOIL.
- Trade or commercial secrets, or financial records which involve a private company.
- Any materials that have been gathered by law enforcement agency and which, if turned over, could impede an ongoing investigation or put the public in further danger, or if the information might compromise a current trial or criminal proceeding.
- Any information which would endanger the life of any individual.
- Testing information or answer keys that may be used to cheat in school or government tests or on any government certifications.
There is currently no defined procedure for requesting public records in the state of New York. Even so, there is a generally accepted format that mimics how these requests are normally carried out that can help you make sure you have the best odds of getting a positive response. Start by writing an email or letter to the specific agency you are requesting records from. Most organizations have an employee to handle requests, but they likely won’t forward your request if you send it to the wrong place. Next, be sure to clearly state that you are requesting public records under FOIL. Finally, just state the information you’re looking for as specifically as possible, including dates and other identifying information to make the request as easy to field; that’s all there is too it.