Access to Public Records in California

Note: This page covers information specific to California. For general information concerning access to government records see the Access to Government Records section of this guide.

You have a statutory right to inspect a vast number of California's public records using the state's California Public Records Act (CPRA). See the text of the CPRA in sections 6250 and 6253 of the California Government Code (Cal. Gov't Code), which states that any individual, corporation, partnership, limited liability company, firm or association, both in and out of California, can inspect California public records.

You are not required to explain why you are making a request. However, if you request the disclosure of the address of any individual who has been arrested, or the current address of the victim of a crime, you must state whether the request is made for a journalistic, scholarly, political or governmental purpose, and declare that the information will not be used to sell a product or service. Cal. Gov't Code § 6254(f)(3).

What Records Are Covered in California

What Government Bodies Are Covered

You can inspect the public records of California state offices, officers, departments, divisions, bureaus, boards and commissions, and other state bodies and agencies. You can also inspect the public records of local agencies, including counties, cities, schools districts, municipal corporations, districts, political subdivisions, local public agencies, and nonprofit entities that are legislative bodies of a local agency. However, you will not be able to access the records from the California state legislature or its committees, nor to the state courts under the CPRA. See Access to Government Meetings and Access to Court Records for more information.

What Types of Records Can Be Requested

You can inspect all "public records" of the government bodies subject to the CPRA. The term "public records" is broadly defined to include information relating to the conduct of the public's business that is prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of what medium it is stored in. See Cal. Gov't Code § 6252(e).

Note that public records do not extend to personal information of public officers which are unrelated to the conduct of public business (for example, a phone message taken by a public officer from a colleague's wife about picking up the children), or computer software developed by the government.

Exemptions

An agency may refuse to provide a record if, in a particular case, "the public interest served by not making the record public clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record." [Cal. Gov't Code § 6255]. For more information, visit California First Amendment Coalition's FAQs on the general public interest exemption.

In addition to this general exemption, an agency is entitled (but not required) to refuse disclosure if one or more of the following narrowly construed statutory exemptions applies. The Act sets out a long list of specific exemptions (Cal. Gov't Code § 6254), including:

  • Preliminary drafts, notes or memoranda. Pre-decisional, deliberative communications which are not retained by the public agency in the ordinary course of business need not be disclosed if the public interest in withholding those records clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure (see California First Amendment Coalition's FAQs on this exemption).
  • Pending litigation. This exemption applies to documents pertaining to pending litigation to which the public agency is a party, including attorney work product and documents produced by the agency in anticipation of litigation, but not including deposition transcripts (see California First Amendment Coalition's FAQs on this exemption).
  • Private personal information. Files pertaining to the personnel, medical, wage, financial, job applications or similar matters are exempted from disclosure if disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy (see California First Amendment Coalition's FAQs on this exemption).
  • Securities and banking regulators. Applications and other confidential information received by, and reports and draft commmunications produced by/for, these state agencies are exempt from disclosure.
  • Geological and geophysical data. This exemption applies to plant production data and similar information relating to utility systems development, or market or crop reports, which are obtained in confidence.
  • Law enforcement. Records of complaints, investigations, intelligence records, security procedures and other documents of law enforcement agencies are exempted from disclosure (see California First Amendment Coalition's FAQs on this exemption).
  • Examination data. Test questions, scoring keys and other examination data used to administer a licensing and other examinations are exempt from disclosure.
  • Real estate appraisals and engineering estimates. Where real estate appraisals or engineering or feasibility estimates and evaluations are made relative to the acquisition of property, or to prospective public supply and construction contracts, disclosure can be refused until all of the property has been acquired or the contract executed.
  • Taxpayer information. Information submitted by a taxpayer in confidence, and financial data submitted in applications for financing under the Health and Safety Code, is exempt if the disclosure of information to other persons would result in unfair competitive disadvantage to the person supplying the information.
  • Library circulation records. Records kept for the purpose of identifying the borrower of items available in libraries are exempt from disclosure.
  • Privileged or confidential information. Records are exempt under CPRA if disclosure is exempted or prohibited pursuant to federal or state law (see California First Amendment Coalition's FAQs on this exemption).
  • Employee relations. State agencies are exempted from disclosing records concerning employee relations strategy.
  • Homeland security. An internal agency document assessing agency vulnerability to terrorist attack is exempt.

How to Request Records in California

Making the request

You do not need to make a written request to receive the public documents you want to inspect. If you have a routine request, start by making an informal request for the records over the telephone before invoking the law. If the agency information officer you speak with cannot grant your request over the telephone, he should be able to provide you with the necessary steps for making a formal request.

Although you are not required to do so, setting your request out in a letter may help you to get the public records you want. The letter should be addressed to the public records officer of the agency, and should include the following information, as appropriate:

  • Your name, address, email address and telephone number (you have the right to make an anonymous request, but providing these details might make it easier to communicate about your request with the information officer)
  • A clear description of the record(s) that you are seeking, or, if you are uncertain of how to describe the records you wish to obtain, a description of your purpose in seeking records and a request that the agency assist you to identify relevant records;
  • Date limits for any search
  • If you anticipate that the record may be hard to find, any search clues you can think of
  • A statement that if portions of the records are exempted, the non-exempt portions of relevant records still be provided
  • Limitations on pre-authorized costs or a request for a cost waiver, together with your reasons for requesting a waiver.

You can request either to view the records or to have copies made. Viewing records at the agency's office will probably be quicker, and might give you the opportunity to narrow down the list of documents you want copies of, and also reduces your copying expenses.

Fulfilling the Request

Agencies are required to provide prompt access to records. Once you make your request to inspect records, you should get immediate access to those records during the hours set by the agency for inspection of records. If you request copies, the agency must decide within ten days whether copies will be provided, except in unusual circumstances, where it may grant itself an extension of fourteen days. "Unusual circumstances" means an agency needs to:

  • Search for and collect the requested records from outside the office processing the request (eg. field facilities or regional offices);
  • Search for and process a voluminous amount of records in a single request;
  • Consult with another agency (or another part of the same agency) having substantial interest in the determination of the request; or
  • Compile data, to write programming language or a computer program, or to construct a computer report to extract data.

Payment

A government agency can only charge you the "direct cost" of duplicating records unless it is authorized by statute to charge a reasonable flat fee. In the case of documents, "direct cost" means the cost of photocopying (approximately 10 to 25 cents per page). In the case electronic data, "direct cost" can mean the cost of producing a copy of the record in electronic format (the cost of the disk, as well as the cost of constructing the record, programming and computer services if this is required).

A statutory fee may be higher than the direct cost of duplicating a record, but cannot exceed what is reasonably necessary to provide the copy. In either case, staff time spent searching for and reviewing records cannot be recovered. Although there is no fee waiver in the CPRA, agencies have the discretion to waive or reduce fees.

What Are Your Remedies in California

You have several options open to you should your request be denied. First, try to work with the information officer you are dealing with. If the agency is relying on an exemption, ask the information officer if he will waive the exemption because exemptions are permissive, not mandatory. If that fails, you can also ask the information officer to release the nonexempt portions of the record with the exempt portions removed or redacted.

If you feel frustrated by your conversations with the information officer, you ask to speak to someone more senior within the agency and explain your case.

Look to see whether the agency has any process in place to appeal the denial. Some agencies have created a formal process for administrative appeal and some municipal agencies have adopted sunshine ordinances providing for administrative review of denials. If this option is available, pursue it before starting any court action.

If administrative appeals are not available, or if your request is denied after administrative review, you are entitled to seek court review of the denial (Cal. Gov't Code §§ 5258-5260). Refer to California First Amendment Project's Q&A on using legal action to enforce disclosure. Additionally, refer to our section on Finding Legal Help for more information on how to get legal assistance to help you assess the merits of a potential lawsuit against the agency.

 

Last updated on April 23rd, 2008

   
 
Copyright 2007-13 Digital Media Law Project and respective authors. Except where otherwise noted,
content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License: Details.
Use of this site is pursuant to our Terms of Use and Privacy Notice.