Putnam Denied Right to Protect Gun Owner Identities: Decision Most Likely to be Appealed

MaryEllen Odell
Putnam County Executive
(845) 808-1001

March 5, 2014

Putnam Denied Right to Protect Gun Owner Identities
Decision Most Likely to be Appealed

Putnam County’s legal argument to prevent the names and addresses of any of its pistol permit holders from being made public in electronic form was denied yesterday when the decision from Supreme Court Justice Robert A. Neary found in favor of the plaintiff, Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc.

Gannett, owner of The Journal News, sought to obtain the data through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request filed by a newspaper reporter on May 15, 2013. This latest action was a follow-up to its earlier FOIL request for the identical information which Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant refused to disclose. The newspaper gathered permit information from Westchester and Rockland counties and published the names and addresses in a controversial article shortly after the Dec. 14, 2012 shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown, CT where 26 people including students, were killed.  

Citing exceptions provided for in the law, Sant denied the newspaper’s second request for permit holders’ information on May 23, 2013. he based his refusal on Section 87 (2)(b) of CPLR Article 78 which states that access to records may be denied if the disclosure constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Sant also referenced Section 87 (2)(f) which allows for withholding such information when disclosure could endanger the life or safety of any person.

Gannett immediately appealed the action to County Executive MaryEllen Odell who upheld her County Clerk’s decision. Gannett then filed an appeal with the Westchester County Supreme Court.

Odell and Sant, who will retire from his position at year’s end, believe they have done the correct thing all along.

“We have held firm in our belief that a pistol permit holder is entitled to his or her right to privacy. Publishing information on permit holders does nothing more than create a dangerous roadmap for those with a criminal intent. People who have chosen not to have weapons in their homes become unnecessarily vulnerable,” said Odell.

“Our worst nightmare has come true,” Sant said. “We are fighting the good fight on this and will do everything in our power to oppose this crusade by the media to get their hands on an individual’s personal information.”

Odell and Sant are reaching out to permit and non-permit holders alike and asking everyone to join in the fight to protect an individual’s right to privacy. To do so, Odell suggests all residents contact their state representatives and urge them to make the necessary changes to the Penal Law which would keep personal information, such as names and addresses of pistol permit holders, confidential. 

Social media is another avenue they will seek to utilize to spread their message.

“We are encouraging people to use every resource available. Pass the word along on social media, in blogs or in letters to the editor,” Odell said.  

Sant said the most puzzling point in the ruling is the double standard he sees in play.

“I cannot understand how the exact same personal information, when sought on the state level and given to the State Troopers, is sealed. It’s confidential,” he said. “However, now on the county level, this very same personal information will not be kept confidential. It can be made public. It just doesn’t make sense.” 

In his decision, Neary cited that while the grounds Sant used in denying the FOIL request were generally sound, the case predated the January 2013 amendment made to Penal Law Section 400.00 which established a procedure for the disclosure of names and addresses of pistol permit holders, stating such information was to be public record and could be publically disclosed. The amended law (Section(5)(b)) would allow permit holders to file for an exemption to keep their information from becoming public record.

Conditions were stated in the amended law which would allow certain applicant’s information from being made public. Those included individuals who believed their life or safety may be endangered, active duty or retired police, peace, probation, parole and corrections officers and their spouses, and witnesses or jurors in a criminal proceeding and their spouses.

County Attorney Jennifer S. Bumgarner was informed that the County was “directed to comply” with The Journal News’ request for the release of “all names and addresses of pistol permit holders in Putnam County who had not qualified under the SAFE Act to exempt themselves from disclosure.” It was not the outcome she had envisioned.

“I am disappointed in the Court’s ruling. We are going to be asking for a stay while preparing to seek an appeal,” Bumgarner said.

In the meantime, pistol permit holders are encouraged to complete an Opt Out form which can be downloaded from the County Clerk’s website at putnamcountyny.com/county-clerk. Contact Deputy County Clerk Michael Bartolotti at (845) 808-1142 Ext. 49303 for additional information on filing the form. Once the paperwork form is filed, a permit holder’s information will remain confidential. 

“This is truly a call to action and it has to be all hands on deck,” said Sant. 

Neary did decline to award attorney’s fees to the newspaper. In his decision, he stated that “. . . it cannot be said that the Respondents had no reasonable basis for denying access to the records in question.”