California and every other state in the Union has an open-records or public-records law like the federal Freedom of Information Act, which we wrote about last week. You can read more about your state’s law here, here, or here.
You’ll find the California Public Records Act (or CPRA) in sections 6250–6276.48 of the Government Code. The law was first passed in 1968, and in 2004, the state’s voters gave it a constitutional dimension by amending the California Constitution to enshrine a public “right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business.”
The CPRA dictates that public records be made available to the public except as exempted by law, and it defines public records broadly to include any record, in any form, relating to the conduct of the public’s business.
There is, however, no central source or standard procedure through which to get records. Each agency can adopt its own rules as long as they are consistent with the law, so the process may vary from city to city, county to county, or agency to agency.
Many agencies post written guidelines on how to request their records. These include state agencies like the Departments of Justice; Health Care Services; Motor Vehicles; and Corrections and Rehabilitation (including the Division of Juvenile Justice).
You should start by simply asking for the records, but to get anywhere, you must reasonably describe an identifiable record. You don’t have to make your request in writing, but you generally should for clarity’s sake or if you expect pushback.
The agency will have ten days to weigh your request and get back to you. It may extend that period by up to fourteen days in some cases. Then it will either disclose the records in whole or in part; explain why it won’t disclose them; or help you clarify your request. If it decides to disclose the records, it must specify approximately when it will do so.
The agency may deny your request for records if they fall under an exemption. What it can’t do is deny you based on why you want them or what you plan to do with them. There are way more exemptions than we can list here, but some important ones include the following:
- Records whose disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
- Records that are legally privileged or otherwise exempted from disclosure by law.
- Records relating to certain aspects of law-enforcement investigations or intelligence.
- Records for which the public’s interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighs its interest in disclosure.
If your request is denied, you can sue for the records in court, but you should consult a lawyer for that. If you win, the court will order the agency to pay your legal fees and costs. If you lose and your case was clearly frivolous, you’ll have to pay the agency’s fees and costs.