In my 12 years as an attorney with the ACLU in San Francisco, I routinely used the California Public Records Act to get information from state and local agencies; I also sued to enforce our requests and gave trainings on how to use the law. There are several good, long, detailed guides on the web that explain what the law says (I’ve included links to two of them at the bottom of this page), so I’m not going to repeat what is in them; instead, this is a short (or shortish at least), step-by-step guide with practical tips on how you can use the Public Records Act to get documents and information without wasting time or money.
1. Decide what information and records you really want to request.
You can request any records you want, but there’s a balance you need to consider: the bigger your request, the longer it will probably take you to actually get the records and the more it may cost you (details below). So take a few minutes to think about what exactly you want. A single, specific document? Documents that contain certain information? Ask for everything you want, but don’t ask for more than that.
2. Try to figure out what agency has those records.
Sometimes this will be obvious – if you want your city manager’s employment contract, the city will have that. But, for example, if you want to know about a certain arrest, you make first have to figure out who was the arresting agency: was it your city police department? The county sheriff’s department? The California Highway Patrol? You may end up deciding to send requests to all three agencies if you really don’t know which one was involved.
3. Optional – try to figure out whether they have to give you the records you want.
The PRA has a lot of exceptions – for example, the government generally doesn’t have to provide police incident reports. You may want to do some research (try the resources at the bottom of this page) to see whether the records you are requesting are exempt from disclosure. But keep in mind that the government can decide to give you most types of records even if they don’t have to do so – for example, many police departments will provide incident reports. And some places (San Francisco, Oakland, and Contra Costa County, for example) have sunshine laws that may give you a broader right to records than the PRA requires. So there’s no harm in asking, even if you think they don’t have to disclose the records; they might give them to you, and the worst that can happen is they say no.
4. Write the request.
You don’t have to make a written request, but a written request is better because it creates a record of what exactly you requested; oral requests can lead to confusion or worse. Requests don’t have to be long; they just need to provide a reasonable description of what you want so that the agency can figure out what to send you.
For example, if you know the exact name of the document you want, you can simply write
I am requesting the following records under the California Public Records Act:
- The city manager’s current employment contract.
- A video of the September City Council meeting.
Or, if you know you want some information but don’t know the name of the documents that will contain the information, ask for records that contain that information:
I am requesting records containing the following information under the California Public Records Act:
- The salary and other compensation paid to the city manager for each of the last 3 years.
- Records showing what happened at the September City Council meeting.
Of course, you can also make both types of requests in the same letter.
Include your name and contact information. And if you want the records in electronic format (which can save time and money) tell them so. (“Please send me the records in electronic format.”).
If you want, you can send a more detailed request that explains what the government should do to comply with your request if you want; it’s not necessary but it might speed things up. You can see an example here.
5. Send the request.
Find a good email address, fax number, or other way to send the request to an appropriate person. Email is best because it creates a record of when you sent the request and to whom. Check the agency’s website; many will have a specific email for records requests. If not, they may have a general email for information requests, which should also work. You may want to call the agency and ask for an email address. Occasionally they will want you to fax a request; if you do this then the fax transmittal page will show when you sent it. You can even send a request on Facebook or Twitter if the agency has an account (many do), although if you do this you may want to send a copy by some other means, too.
Some agency websites have a records request page with a form that you fill out. You should definitely look for these and use them if they exist. Some of these will send you a confirmation email or will post your request on their website along with the date it was made. If the form does not have any sort of confirmation function, you may also want to send your request by email or fax.
Finally, you can also mail your request using snail mail. This is not optimal – it will take a few days to get there and usually won’t create a record of when you sent your request (you can send it registered mail if you really want to, but that takes more time and money than the other alternatives). If you are doing this because the agency won’t give you an email address (which is really inexcusable), take a photo of the request and the addressed envelope before you send it off. And you should also consider sending it by email to anybody at the agency whose email address you can locate, asking them to forward it to the appropriate person.
6. Wait for a response. Follow-up if you don’t get one.
The government has a legal duty to respond to your request in 10 days; state agencies will generally do this, as will many local agencies. But some don’t. If you haven’t received a response within 2 weeks you should follow up (I usually give them a few extra days – if the 10th day is a weekend or holiday they can wait until the following business day to respond, and they might have mailed you a response). Send another email, call them (make a note of when you called and who you talked with), reminding them of the request and of the 10-day deadline for a response. Be polite (they are usually doing the best they can to respond to requests) but firm (they do have to follow the law). This will usually get a response. If not, send them reminders every few days. Occasionally nothing but a lawsuit will get their attention, but this is quite rare.
7. Review the response.
You will generally get one of three types of responses:
- They need more time. If you are requesting a lot of records, or the request requires the agency to consult with other departments, the law allows the government to give itself an extra 14 days to tell you what if anything it will provide. This is supposed to happen only in unusual cases, but some agencies seem to do it quite often. Unless it’s really unreasonable (for example, you only requested a single document that they clearly have to disclose), there is not much you can do about this except wait.
- They will provide the records (or some of them). Sometimes they will even send them along with the response. More often, they will tell you that they will send them by a certain date (the law requires them to provide an estimated date); they may also require that you pay copying costs before they send them.
- They will not provide the records (or some of them). If the agency refuses to give you records it is supposed to tell you why, so you can check to see whether their reasons seem correct. If you disagree, you can follow up with a letter explaining why you think they should provide them; this rarely works. Or you can sue them, as described below. Note that if a single document contains both information that they must disclose as well as information that they can withhold, they have to release the disclosable parts and redact (black-out or erase) only those parts they can lawfully refuse to disclose.
8. Pay for the records or go inspect them.
Agencies are sometimes allowed to charge you for records, but there are limits on what they can charge you for and how much they can charge you; you may also be able to completely avoid these charges.
Generally, agencies can only charge for the direct costs of copying and mailing records; they cannot charge for the time it took to locate or review them. There are two exceptions to this general rule. First, if complying with your request requires them to engage in computer programming or data extraction, it may be able to charge for that. And it is not at all clear (yet) what counts as programming, so some agencies may try to improperly charge you for this, sometimes asking for thousands of dollars to comply with your request.
Second, counties – but not cities, districts, or the state — may be able to impose some additional charges if their supervisors have authorized them to. This is not particularly common.
Generally, agencies will charge you about $0.10-$0.20 per page of paper records; if the records are maintained in electronic format and you want to receive them in that same format, they may charge you nothing at all (particularly if they can email them to you) or just charge for the cost of a CD-ROM and maybe the time it takes to burn the records onto it.
If you don’t want to pay what the government is requesting, you have a few options:
- Request electronic copies; for large requests, this can eliminate expensive copying costs.
- Ask to come and inspect the records at the agency during normal business hours, rather than having them make copies. The law says that they generally have to let you do this, although it might not be feasible for some electronic records or records that are only partially disclosable.
- Ask them to provide copies of only some of the records they have located; they should work with you to try to determine which are the most responsive to your request and eliminate duplicates or documents that are on the agency’s website or otherwise publicly available.
9. What to do if the government is failing to follow the law
If the government wrongly fails to comply with the Public Records Act you can sue it in California superior court to enforce your request. And sometimes this is the only way you can get the government to follow the law – to provide records they have to provide, to charge only allowable fees, or sometimes even to respond to your request. If the lawsuit is successful the government will have to pay the costs of bringing suit, including attorney’s fees. This means that lawyers may be willing to sue to enforce your request without charging you anything, or at a reduced rate. If you have followed the steps in this guide and you think the government is violating the law, you should consider contacting a lawyer who handles public records suits.
10. Do whatever you want with the records you received.
You will occasionally receive records that are stamped “do not copy” or that include a cover letter telling you not to distribute them. This violates both the PRA and the First Amendment; once the government releases records under the Public Records Act, those records are public, and you can do whatever you want with them. If the agency suggests otherwise, it is worth contacting the agency to tell them that you consider the records to be public just to make sure there is no confusion before you release them.
Here are some of the best resources on the web about the California Public Records Act. They are much longer and contain much more detail about what the government can and cannot withhold:
League of California Cities, The People’s Business: A Guide to the California Public Records Act A comprehensive guide. Since it’s published by the League of California Cities many government officials will be willing to believe what it says.
First Amendment Coalition, Accessing Public Records: The California Public Records Act Another comprehensive guide; the FAC website also contains a bunch of great information on public-records and open-government laws.