In March of 2019, a Rochester resident sued the City of Rochester (the “City”) seeking to compel the City to provide footage from police body cameras under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”). The City resident specifically sought footage of body cameras worn by police officers who allegedly shot his dog — which was in his fenced-in back yard — on October 19, 2018. The resident claimed that the officers entered his property without a warrant and without his permission.
The resident asked the City for the footage, but was told in an email that the City “did not possess any body-worn camera recording of (the officer) shooting and killing” the dog. However, after the resident’s attorney submitted a FOIL request to the City seeking the footage, City officials acknowledged that the incident had been recorded, but nonetheless refused to provide the recording.
Accordingly, the resident sued the City this year, asking the New York State Supreme Court to force the City to release the video, pursuant to FOIL. In an April 25, 2019 decision, the Court granted the resident’s petition, and ordered the City to provide video, which it did.
But the case didn’t end there. Under FOIL, a successful petitioner can obtain attorneys’ fees and costs from the agency that illegally denied access to the requested record, especially where “the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access”. Accordingly, the Court held that the City was required to pay the resident’s attorneys fees from the lawsuit, and ordered the City to pay the resident $10,000.00.
This case highlights the importance of the Freedom Of Information Law. FOIL offers an important tool for individuals, groups, and businesses to gain access to government records, promote transparency, and provide a check on local power. Likewise, the federal Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) grants public access to federal government records, subject to specific exceptions.
Whereas the press and those concerned with government oversight sometimes use FOIL/FOIA to make information public, others use it to obtain evidence in anticipation of litigation, to stay informed about projects that may affect them, or simply to monitor what government agencies are up to.
For municipalities and agencies, though, the risks of failing to comply with FOIL can be significant, and a mistake can be expensive. The possibility that a Court may grant attorneys’ fees and costs both encourages government agencies to provide records that the public has a legal right to access, and helps offset the cost of litigation for individuals, groups, and businesses who were illegally denied access to public records.
If you are concerned about how a potential FOIL violation may affect you or your business, would like help submitting a FOIL request or appeal, would like to challenge a FOIL denial in court, or if you are a member of a local government or government agency that has been accused of a FOIL violation, be sure to contact an experienced attorney for help.
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