Often times while researching my cases I have to request a “FOIA” (Freedom of Information Act) request to local and/or state entities in order to gain access to information that is not generally found in the public sector. This is how the press and private investigators gain knowledge about arrest records and the like. This information is NOT found on the internet and sometimes the only way to gain access to this information is by having a full understanding of the law that has been available to the public since 1966.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, is a federal freedom of information law that allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government. The Act defines agency records subject to disclosure, outlines mandatory disclosure procedures and grants nine exemptions to the statute. This amendment was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966, and went into effect the following year.
As indicated by its long title, the acronym, FOIA, was extracted from its original home in Section 3 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Section 3 of the APA, as enacted in 1946, gave agencies broad discretion concerning the publication of governmental records. Following concerns that the provision had become more of a withholding than a disclosure mechanism, Congress amended the section in 1966 as a standalone act to implement “a general philosophy of full agency disclosure.” The amendment required agencies to publish their rules of procedure in the Federal Register, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(1)(C), and to make available for public inspection and copying their opinions, statements of policy, interpretations, and staff manuals and instructions that are not published in the Federal Register, § 552(a)(2). In addition, § 522(a)(3) requires every agency, “upon any request for records which. . . reasonably describes such records” to make such records “promptly available to any person.” If an agency improperly withholds any documents, the district court has jurisdiction to order their production. Unlike the review of other agency action that must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence and not arbitrary or capricious, FOIA expressly places the burden “on the agency to sustain its action,” and directs the district courts to “determine the matter de novo.”
*The Federal Government’s Freedom of Information Act should not be confused with the different and varying Freedom of Information Acts passed by the individual states. Many of those state acts may be similar but not identical to the federal act.
The following website is a great tool to use for sample records requests listed by state. When making these requests you must be specific in what you are asking. For example, if you desire to find out how often the police were called to a specific property address, then you must make the address clear in your request. You do not need to make any mention of the names located at the address, just the address.
Submitting an open records request to a state, county or local government is not difficult. However, a complete, well-written letter or email submitted to the right agency may increase your chances of getting a satisfactory response and avoiding delays or the need for further correspondence. Most states’ FOIA laws require that public records requests be made in writing. Even if your state does not, it is often a good idea to make a written request so that you have documentary evidence that the request was made.
Click the link below to find a sample letter template that you can use for preparing and submitting your open records request under your state’s public disclosure laws.