Thursday, March 30, 2017
The New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department reversed an order giving access to records of the officer who caused the death of Eric Garner.
The issues before us stem from the extensively publicized arrest and death of Eric Garner on July 17, 2014. Intervenor Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo was depicted in a bystander video applying a choke hold to Mr. Garner during the incident. An investigation followed, and on December 2, 2014, a grand jury declined to indict Officer Pantaleo in connection with Mr. Garner's death.
Petitioner submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) letter request to respondent Records Access Officer, Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), dated December 18, 2014, seeking eight categories of records concerning Officer Pantaleo, dating from 2004 to the date of Mr. Garner's death. Petitioner sought: (1) the number of complaints filed against Officer Pantaleo; (2) the number of allegations contained within each complaint; (3) the outcome of CCRB's investigation of each allegation; (4) any prosecution by CCRB in response to such finding; (5) the outcome of any prosecution by CCRB; (6) any charges and specifications filed by the New York City Police Department's (NYPD) Department Advocate Office; (7) the outcome of any Department Advocate Office proceedings; and (8) any other agency actions in response to the above requests.
On December 24, 2014, CCRB denied the request, citing the statutory exemption from disclosure provided for police personnel records contained in Public Officers Law § 87(2)(a) and Civil Rights Law § 50-a. In addition to the statutory exemptions, CCRB noted that the request for records relating to unsubstantiated matters would constitute "an unreasonable invasion of privacy." Finally, CCRB noted that it was not possible to redact any responsive records "in a way that will disassociate allegations against [Officer Pantaleo] given the nature of" petitioner's request. Petitioner appealed to the CCRB on December 29, 2014, but received no response.
This article 78 proceeding was commenced on February 17, 2015, and sought an order directing the CCRB to produce "a summary of the number of allegations, complaints and outcomes brought against" Officer Pantaleo. Much of petitioner's broader initial request was thus abandoned. During the proceedings, petitioner further narrowed its FOIL request, seeking only information as to "whether the CCRB substantiated complaints against Officer Pantaleo and, if so, whether there were any related administrative proceedings, and those outcomes, if any." Officer Pantaleo applied for and was granted intervenor status as a party respondent. His opposition papers alleged, among other things, that even the requested summary of the CCRB records was exempt from disclosure because it would endanger his life and the lives of his family members. In support, he referenced online, unsubstantiated reports of alleged misconduct on his part that resulted in the arrest of a Michigan man in February 2015 for posting Facebook death threats against him. Officer Pantaleo also stated that the NYPD's Threat Assessment Unit had assigned police officers to watch over him and his family 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and implemented other security measures as well. He also agreed with the CCRB that the requested documents constituted "personnel records" within the meaning of Civil Rights Law § 50-a(1) and were therefore exempt from disclosure.
Here, in light of the widespread notoriety of Mr. Garner's death and Officer Pantaleo's role therein, and the fact that hostility and threats against Officer Pantaleo have been significant enough to cause NYPD's Threat Assessment Unit to order around-the-clock police protection for him and his family, and notwithstanding the uncertainty of further harassment, we find that the gravity of the threats to Officer Pantaleo's safety nonetheless demonstrate that disclosure carries a "substantial and realistic potential" for harm, particularly in the form of "harassment and reprisals," and that nondisclosure of the requested records under Civil Rights Law § 50-a is warranted (see Daily Gazette, 93 NY2d at 157, 159).
The points raised in the various amici briefs can be summarized, in the main, as raising various public policy concerns. However, with all due respect to the seriousness of those concerns, we take no position on whether the statute should be amended to address those concerns. We are bound to apply the law as it exists, and as interpreted by controlling Court of Appeals precedents (Matter of New York Civil Liberties Union v New York City Police Dept., __ AD3d __ [1st Dept 2017]). Such policy and public interest arguments have been found to be inconsistent with the legislative history of Civil Rights Law § 50-a (see Daily Gazette, 93 NY2d at 154-155). Petitioner's remedies, under our tripartite system of government, rest with the Legislature as the policy making branch of government, not the courts, which are tasked with interpretation of the laws.
...the order and judgment (one paper), of the Supreme Court, New York County (Alice Schlesinger, J.), entered July 27, 2015, directing respondent to produce to petitioner, pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), a summary of CCRB's records indicating (a) the number of substantiated complaints brought against intervenor before the July 17, 2014 death of Eric Garner and (b) any CCRB recommendations made to the Police Department based on such complaints, should be reversed, on the law, without costs, the judgment vacated, the petition denied, and the proceeding brought pursuant to CPLR article 78 dismissed.