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New York Appellate Court Holds Names of Prison Guards are Public Records

by Ed Lyon

From February 2015 to January 2016, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLS) made a series of records requests to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). The requests were made under the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), and included prisoner behavior reports, use of force reports and unusual incident reports. 

The DOCCS complied, but redacted the names of all prison guards in the reports. PLS sought an administrative review of the redactions. Prison officials then provided additional documents, also redacting the prison guards’ names. The DOCCS argued that records including guards’ names fell under the personnel records exception provided under the FOIL statute. 

PLS filed suit in New York’s Supreme Court, challenging the redactions. The organization contended that the redacted records were not personnel records pursuant to § 87(2) of the Public Officers Law and § 50-a(l) of the Civil Rights Law. The trial court ruled in favor of the DOCCS and dismissed the petition. 

On appeal, prison officials argued an opposite approach to § 50-a(l) of the Civil Rights Law and § 87(2) of the Public Officers Law, seeking to maintain the status quo. The appellate court rejected those arguments and, in a unanimous opinion, reversed the trial court’s order of dismissal. The justices held that “Given their factual nature and that each is written by a witness or witnesses with knowledge of the underlying [prison] facility event, we find unusual incident reports, use of force reports and misbehavior reports to be more akin to arrest reports, stop reports, summonses, accident reports and body-worn camera footage, none of which is quintessentially ‘personnel records.’”

The lower court’s decision was therefore reversed, and PLS’ petition was granted. See: Matter of Prisoners’ Legal Services of N.Y. v. New York State Dept. of Corr. & Community Supervision, 173 A.D.3d 8, 98 N.Y.S.3d 677 (NY App. Div. 3rd Dept. 2019). 

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Additional source: timesunion.com

Related legal case

Matter of Prisoners’ Legal Services of N.Y. v. New York State Dept. of Corr. & Community Supervision