Trooper Hit-and-Run Records Request Revived

     ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – A New York appeals court reinstated a newspaper’s request for records on a fatal hit-and-run accident in which a former state trooper allegedly ran over a drunk pedestrian.
     A reporter for the Albany Times Union had requested records on the role of former trooper Brian Beardsley in the 2011 accident, which killed a man who had been lying drunk in a road on the Saratoga-Fulton counties line.
     Beardsley, then an off-duty trooper, allegedly ran over Chad Finch with his truck and left the scene after the accident was reported. Finch, whose blood alcohol content was 0.20 percent, had been walking home from a bar and was alive when he was hit, according to reports about the subsequent investigation.
     Beardsley was charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident, but a Fulton County grand jury declined to indict him on criminal charges, according to media reports. He left the State Police a month later, although officials would not say if he resigned or was fired.
     When the newspaper sought records on Beardsley’s role in the accident, the agency denied the request, citing an exemption to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL.
     Under FOIL, state records are presumed to be available to the public unless they “are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute.”
     One such exemption shields “personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion.” The agency cited this exemption in its denial of the reporter’s request.
     After an unsuccessful administrative appeal, Times Union owner Hearst Corp. asked the Albany County Supreme Court for an order forcing the agency to hand over the records.
     The trial court sided with the New York State Police and dismissed the petition, but the Appellate Division’s Third Judicial Department in Albany reversed.
     “As with all statutory exemptions to disclosure under FOIL, this exemption must be narrowly construed and respondent, as the agency opposing disclosure, ‘carries the burden of demonstrating that the requested material falls squarely within a FOIL exemption by articulating a particularized and specific justification for denying access,'” Justice Karen Peters wrote, citing previous decisions.
     Although the four-justice panel revived the petition, it rejected the newspaper’s claim that the exemption for personnel records no longer applied since Beardsley left the State Police. That interpretation “would lead to the illogical result that a document ceases to be a personnel record immediately upon the officer’s severance from employment,” Peters wrote.
     The justices also pointed to a 1999 state-court finding that police personnel records could be kept confidential if their release could be used to “degrade, harass, embarrass or impeach” the integrity of officers in subsequent lawsuits.
     Beardsley “is a defendant in a pending wrongful death civil lawsuit arising from the alleged hit-and-run incident,” the justices noted, and “his interests may be adversely affected by a judgment ordering disclosure of documents sought in this proceeding.”
     But the justices said the agency’s motion to dismiss “must nevertheless be denied because, at this juncture, it has failed to demonstrate that the requested records ‘fall[] squarely within the exemption.'”
     “Moreover … the record is devoid of any affidavit or other evidence specifying the types of responsive records that exist and establishing that any such documents were ‘used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion’ as required by that statute,” Peters wrote.
     “As the petition was improperly dismissed for failure to state a cause of action, respondent must be afforded the opportunity to serve and file an answer,” the court concluded.
     But the justices denied attorneys’ fees to Hearst, saying it has not “at this time substantially prevailed.”
     Justices John Lahtinen, Leslie Stein and Elizabeth Garry joined Peters’ opinion.

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