Note: This page covers information specific to Washington. 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 Washington’s public records using the state's Public Records Act. See chapter 42, section 56 of the Revised Code of Washington, (Wash. Rev. Code). You are not required to tell the agency your purpose for requesting the reocrds, and the agency cannot "distinguish among persons requesting records." Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.080.
What Records Are Covered in Washington
What Government Bodies Are Covered
You are entitled to inspect and copy records of all state and local agencies under the Public Records Act. The term "public agency" is defined broadly and includes every public office, agency, department, division, bureau, board, commission, county, city, town, and municipal corporation. See Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.010(1). However, the Public Records law does not apply to the Washington state legislature or to the state courts. Consult Access to Government Meetings in Washington and Washington State Court Records for more information on how to access records from those government entities.
What Types of Records Can Be Requested
You can inspect all "public records" of Washington’s agencies. The term "public record" refers to any writing relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental function that is prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form. See Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.010(2).
If another statute deems a record confidential or exempt from disclosure, then agencies cannot release the records. However, all exemptions listed in the Public Records Act are discretionary, which means that the agency can choose whether or not it wants to disclose the record. For a comprehensive explanation of all exemptions contained in the Act, see the attorney general's Open Government Manual.
Some general categories of exemptions are as follows:
- Certain personal information - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.230
- Investigative and crime victim information - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.240
- Employment and licensing information - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.250
- Real estate appraisals - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.260
- Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, and intra-agency memorandums - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.280
- Information identifying the location of archaeological sites - see 42.56.300
- Library records - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.310
- Certain educational information - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.320
- Certain information contained in the records of public utilities and transportation - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.330
- Timeshare and condominium owner lists - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.340
- Certain information about health professionals - see 42.56.350
- Certain health care information - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.360
- Domestic violence program and rape crisis center clients - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.370
- Certain information related to agriculture and livestock - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.380
- Names of individuals living in emergency or transitional housing - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.390
- Certain information relating to insurance and financial institutions - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.400
- Employment security department records - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.410
- Certain information related to security - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.420
- Certain information related to fish and wildlife - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.430
- Veterans' discharge papers - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.440
- Check cashers and sellers licensing applications - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.450
- Information about correctional industries workers - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.470
- Information related to inactive programs - see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.480
Additionally, refer to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Open Government Guide: Washington for more information about the exemptions under the state’s Public Records Act.
How to Request Records in Washington
The Act does not specify that you have to make the request in any particular manner. However, it is always to your advantage to make you request as specific as possible. You may also want to provide a written request for clarity. See Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.080. The Student Press Law Center's State Open Records Law Request Letter Generator can help you create a request letter that complies with Washington law.
Washington agencies are required to promptly reply to requests for records. Within five business days of receiving your request, the agency must respond in one of three ways: (1) by providing the record, (2) by acknowledging your request and providing a reasonable estimate of the additional time the agency will require to comply with the request, or (3) by denying the request. See Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.520.
The agency cannot charge you for inspection of records. However, if you would like copies of records, you may be charged a "reasonable" fee. The fee cannot exceed the agency's actual cost of copying the records. In general, the agency may not charge more than $.15 per page. Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.120.
What Are Your Remedies in Washington
If your request is denied, the agency must give you its legal basis for the denial. If you disagree with this response, you have several options. You may:
- Consult the state's Open Government Ombudsman to help you with your request.
- Ask the state's attorney general to review the agency's determination.
- File suit in court to enforce compliance.
If you choose the second option, the attorney general will provide her written opinion as to whether or not the record is exempt. See Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.530. If you choose the third option, 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 public agency. Keep in mind that the burden is on the agency to prove that the record is exempt. See Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.550.