Access to Public Records is Your Constitutional Right: How to Obtain Disclosable Public Records in Five Easy Steps

Fortin Law Group

Published: June 6, 2019

Access to records and information pertaining to public records is "a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state,'' which they can enforce through the California Public Records Act request process. (Govt. Code §§6250, 6253, 6258; Black Panther Party v. Kehoe (1974) 42 Cal.App. 3d 645, 649-650). While the Act provides some exemptions, the right it gives to the public is a broad one, and city officials should take every reasonable action to comply with requests made under the Act.

Follow these five steps to obtain public records:

Step One:
Determine your purpose/goal and then determine which records you need. The Public Records Act request is to obtain public records. Therefore, conversations, thoughts, ideas, etc. are not records unless entered into official public records and may or may not be disclosable.

Step Two:
Prepare your request. Most public entities now have an online portal for requesting the records. However, requests for public records under the Act need not be in writing; requests may be made orally. (L.A. Times v. Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority (2001) 88 Cal.App. 4th 1381, 1392). Public records under the Act are considered open to inspection anytime during business hours of a state or local agency. (Govt. Code §6253(a)). Check your agency for determination of their business hours before calling or going there in person. Make sure the agency from which you are requesting the records has a way to contact you if there are questions, clarification and to deliver the records requested.

Step Three:
Wait for a response. A public agency has 10 days from the receipt of a request to determine whether the request seeks disclosable records in their possession, and thereafter to notify the requester of its determination and its reasons for that decision. (Govt. Code §6253( c)). This does not mean that you will receive the records in 10 days. Often the records requested are too voluminous or may take time to gather.

In some cases, an agency may need additional time to make a determination whether disclosable records exist. In that case, the agency will send written notice of an extension of no more than an additional 14 days in which to make the determination. (Id). The notice shall explain the reasons for the extension and the new date by which a determination is expected to be dispatched.

Step Four:
Need Assistance? Contact the agency; they are there to help you. In fact, the Act requires that the public agency staff responding to a public record request assist the member of the public seeking the records. Generally, the public agency staff will help identify the records and information that are responsive to the request; describe the digital or physical location of the records; and/or provide suggestions for overcoming any practical basis for disclosure denial. (Govt. Code §6253. 1 (a)). In other words, where the initial request is not clear, but the documents are disclosable then the agency staff member should help to ascertain exactly which records are sought and how they can be obtained. (Govt. Code §6253.l(a)(d)).

Step Five:
There are no free lunches. Well, maybe there are some "free lunches". Most agencies will not charge for delivery of the records via electronic means. However, the agency has the right to charge for the collection and duplication of the records. Contact the agency first to determine charges, if any. Generally, payment (if required) must be tendered prior to release of the documents.

This article was provided by Fortin Law Group, Costa Mesa, California. This article is intended to provide the reader with general information regarding current legal issues. It is not construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for the need to seek competent legal advice on specific legal matters.

Tags: 2019, Public Entity

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