Understanding New York Civil Rights Law §50-a | Romano Law

Understanding New York Civil Rights Law §50-a

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Understanding New York Civil Rights Law §50-a

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Advocacy groups have long clamored for the repeal of New York Civil Rights Law §50-a, otherwise known as the Police Secrecy Law.  Organizations such as the Legal Aid Society and Communities United for Police Reform pushed for the repeal of §50-a in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, arguing that police officers could not be adequately held accountable for misconduct if the law remained in effect.  

On Friday, June 12th, 2020, Governor Cuomo signed Assembly Bill A10611, known as the “Say Their Names” law.  The bill effectuated many impactful changes pertaining to police reform, including the appeal of §50-a.

Enacted in 1976, §50-a was a subset of the general right of privacy that exists in New York State.  The text stated that “all personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion . . . shall be considered confidential and not subject to inspection or review without the express written consent of such police officer, firefighter/paramedic, correction officer, or peace officer . . . except as may be mandated by lawful court order.”  

Although perhaps not the original intent, the law was interpreted as prohibiting public access to potential police misconduct and disciplinary records unless a court ordered an officer’s records to be turned over in the context of a proceeding.  As recent as 2018, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed that this law was to be applied broadly in the restriction of public access to police personnel and disciplinary records. As a result, these records were shielded from the public view except in limited circumstances.  

With the repeal of §50-a, police personnel and disciplinary records in New York are no longer protected from public scrutiny. Some have voiced concerns regarding the personal information of police officers, and whether or not these individuals can now be more easily targeted by those who may wish to do them harm. However, the “Say Their Names” law makes clear that certain personal information should be redacted. 

The repeal of §50-a is a landmark reversal of a law that kept New York in the vast minority of states for many years.

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

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