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Buffalo Police Benevolent Association v. Brown

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  1. Freedom of Information

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 26 media organizations

Court: Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Erie

Date Filed: Aug. 21, 2020

Update: In an Oct. 9 decision and order, the trial court dismissed several of the unions’ claims on procedural grounds and denied the requested injunction on the remaining claims. The court found that the unions had fallen well short of demonstrating a likelihood of success on the merits, as the release of pending and unsubstantiated misconduct records is specifically provided for by New York’s Freedom of Information Law. “What Petitioners essentially seek — a pre-emptive strike that will serve as a blanket prohibition on the release of any and all information regarding any complaint deemed ‘unsubstantiated’ — is not merely [a] drastic remedy, it is an inappropriate one,” Judge Frank A. Sedita, III wrote in his opinion.

Background: In June 2020, New York lawmakers repealed Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law, a provision used to shield police misconduct records from public scrutiny. The Buffalo police union and firefighters’ association then sued the mayor of Buffalo and other city entities to prevent them from publishing the records.

The unions are seeking a preliminary injunction to delay the release of “non-final” and “unsubstantiated” misconduct allegations pending the resolution of the lawsuit.

Our Position: The court should deny the unions’ request for a preliminary injunction.

  • A preliminary injunction would be directly contrary to the New York Legislature’s intent in repealing Section 50-a.
  • A preliminary injunction will stymie long-awaited public access to law enforcement records and harm the public’s right to know.
  • The unions cannot demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of their claims.

Quote: “[T]he public has a significant and legitimate interest in records of even unsubstantiated and pending allegations of police misconduct. Meaningful reporting and tangible reform has flowed from access to records of even those ‘non-final’ or ‘unsubstantiated’ allegations of misconduct which Petitioners seek to keep shrouded in secrecy.”

Related: Last week, the Reporters Committee urged the District Court for the Southern District of New York to reject the New York police union’s request for a preliminary injunction that would prevent the publication of “non-final” and “unsubstantiated” allegations of police misconduct. The brief argues that the district court should deny the preliminary injunction sought by the police unions because journalists and news organizations need timely access to these records in order to engage in analysis and reporting on law enforcement in New York.

The Reporters Committee also urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to allow the New York Civil Liberties Union to publish a database of police misconduct records previously shielded by Section 50-a that the organization received through a public records request. The brief argues that enjoining the NYCLU from publishing the database amounts to an unconstitutional prior restraint.

Before New York lawmakers voted to repeal Section 50-a, the Reporters Committee had long advocated against the secrecy provision. In the wake of protests against police brutality earlier this summer, the Reporters Committee sent a letter to New York lawmakers urging them to repeal Section 50-a. Last year, the Reporters Committee submitted testimony to the New York Senate Standing Committee on Codes, arguing that 50-a “has been repeatedly invoked to override the presumption of government transparency that is fundamental to New York’s democratic system of government.” The testimony followed an op-ed Reporters Committee Legal Director Katie Townsend published in the New York Daily News, lamenting that the law “has morphed into a virtually impenetrable wall of secrecy.”