County Ordered to Produce Audio Tapes of Officers’ IA Statements in Wrongful Death Case

In 2006, Suffolk County, New York police officers engaged in a high-speed pursuit of a DUI suspect. During the pursuit, the suspect crashed his vehicle into a house, killing William Calhoun. The Internal Affairs Bureau of the Suffolk County Police Department conducted an investigation into the incident.

Brian Calhoun, as administrator of the Calhoun Estate, sued the Department for wrongful death. During the litigation, Calhoun requested the Department’s IA file. The County objected to the request, arguing that the file was not subject to disclosure under New York’s “Civil Rights Law.” That statute provides that police officer “personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion shall be considered confidential and not subject to inspection or review except as may be mandated by lawful court order.”

Prior to issuing such an order, the Court is obligated to conduct an in camera review of the requested file, “and make a determination as to whether the records are relevant and material in the action before it,” and, upon such a finding “the Court shall make those parts of the record found to be relevant and material available to the persons so requesting.”

After an in camera review of the files, the judge ordered the County to give the internal affairs investigative report of the incident to Calhoun. The order specified that the trial judge reviewed “the reports sought and all documents annexed thereto” and determined that there was “relevant and material information contained therein.” A list of five audio-taped statements of officers interviewed during the investigation was annexed to the report.

Calhoun demanded copies of the audio tapes. The County refused to provide the tapes, again citing the Civil Rights Law, and the judge refused to compel the County to provide the tapes to Calhoun.

The Appellate Division of New York’s Supreme Court concluded that Calhoun was entitled to the tapes and ordered that they be given to him. The Court pointed to New York’s rules of civil procedure, which provides that “there shall be full disclosure of all matter material and necessary in the prosecution of an action.”

The Court reasoned that because the trial judge reviewed “the reports sought and all documentation annexed thereto” before concluding that there was “relevant and material information contained therein,” Calhoun met the “relevant and material” burden required by the Civil Rights Law.

The Court stated: “We perceive no reason why the plaintiff should have been denied access to the audiotapes of the interviews which were identified in the attachments to the IAB report.” The Court also stated that since the tapes were summarized in the report, Calhoun “should be permitted to hear the actual interviews of the officers regarding the accident, and not only read the IAB report’s summaries thereof, since the interviews were the main source material for the IAB report and were incorporated by reference therein.”

Calhoun v. County of Suffolk, 2014 WL 739251 (NY App. Div. 2014).

Note: The Garrity rule prohibits the use of compelled statements against officers in criminal cases, but does not apply in civil cases.