Access to Public Records in the District of Columbia

Note: This page covers information specific to the District of Columbia. 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 the District of Columbia’s public records using the Freedom of Information Act (D.C. FOIA). See section 2-532(a) of the District of Columbia's Annotated Code.

You are not required to explain to a Freedom of Information Officer (FOI Officer), the government officer who controls or has access to public records, why you are making a request. Although you do not need to provide a reason, you may wish to do so as it may be relevant to the agency's determination of whether to rely on an exemption (see below) and deny your request. For example, if you request records which might be exempted as private information, and state that you are seeking the information because it is vital to a pressing issue of public concern, your reasoning may weigh in favor of granting you access to the records.

What Records Are Covered in the District of Columbia

What Government Bodies Are Covered

Under the DC FOI Act, you are entitled to view the public records of any D.C. "public body", including:

  • the Mayor;
  • any subordinate or independent agency, including officers, employees, offices, departments, divisions, commissions; and
  • the Council of the District of Columbia.

D.C. Code Ann. § 2-502(18A).

However, the D.C. FOIA does not apply to intergovernmental agencies (e.g. the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority, which was created by interstate compact), D.C. courts, or bodies under the exclusive control of the court (e.g. the Child and Family Services Division of the Department of Human Services). See Access to Government Meetings in D.C. and Access to D.C. Court Records for more information on how to access records from those government entities.

What Types of Records Can Be Requested

You are entitled to any "public records", including "all books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings or other documentary materials regardless of physical form characteristics prepared, owned or used in the possession of, or retained by a public body." See D.C. Code Ann. § 2-502(18). This includes records in hard copy or in electronic format.

The records need not necessarily be created by the public body, or in the public body's possession, as long as they are under the public body's physical and legal control. You can also request records produced by a private person for a public body under contract (i.e. a delegated duty). D.C. Code Ann. § 2-5376(a)(6).

What Exemptions Might Apply

An agency can refuse to provide access to records covered by any of the following specific exemptions:

  • Trade Secrets and Commercial or Financial Information--disclosure of trade secrets and confidential commercial or financial information obtained from a party outside the government who faces commercial competition, to the extent that this information would harm their competitive position.
  • Privacy--all personal information (including but not limited to mental health records) is exempted from disclosure when disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy, which outweighs the public interest in disclosing it (in DC, disclosure of a record public is in the public interest if it throws light on an agency's performance of its statutory duties
  • Investigatory and Law Enforcement Records--investigatory records created or collected for law enforcement purposes are exempted when disclosure would interfere with enforcement proceedings investigations, deprive a person of a fair trial, constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, disclose the identity of a confidential source, disclose investigation techniques or endanger the lives of law enforcement officers.
  • Interagency Memos and Letters--these communications, including predecisional deliberations on policy, attorney work product, are exempt if they would not be legally available to a party in litigation with a public body.
  • Test Questions and Answers--test questions and answers to be used in future license, employment or academic examinations
  • Information Exempted by Other Statutes--information which is explicitly and specifically exempted from disclosure by another statute is exempted
  • National Defense--information exempted by the federal legislature due to foreign policy or national security concerns are also exempt under the D.C. FOI Act
  • Antitrust--information obtained through antitrust investigations are exempt
  • Arson investigations--information disclosed pursuant to local arson reporting laws are exempted
  • Terrorism--specific response plans for public emergency preparedness and prevention and specific vulnerability assessments that are intended to prevent or to mitigate an act of terrorism are exempted.
  • Business Licensing Information--information provided to the Business License Center are exempted *Whisteblowers--information that would disclose the identity of a whistleblower is exempt unless the name of the whistleblowers is in the public domain.
  • Vital Records--Vital records such as birth certificates, and death, marriage, divorce, and annulment records, the disclosure of which is prohibited by the Vital Records Act, must not be disclosed under the D.C. FOI Act (NB: it is permissible to disclose a vital record to a person with a direct, tangible interest in that record.)

See D.C. Code Ann. § 2-534(a).

The public body bears the burden of proving that the exemption applies. If the FOI Officer can segregate non-exempt portions of the record or redact sensitive information, he must to do and provide those non-exempt portions to you. D.C. Code Ann. § 2-534(b). Visit Open Government Guide's discussion of exemptions for more information about the exemptions.

How to Request Records in the District of Columbia

You can make an oral or a written request to a public body for the records you wish to inspect. If the request is routine, call the agency and ask to speak with the FOI Officer to make your request. If the person you speak with cannot grant your request over the telephone, he should be able to provide you with guidance on the required written request.

Apart from stipulating that public bodies must comply with any request "reasonably describing any public record," the D.C. FOIA does not set out particular information required in a letter, but the following information should be included, as appropriate:

  • Your name, address, email address and telephone number
  • A clear description of the specific 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
  • 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 provide
  • Limitations on pre-authorized costs or a request for a fee waiver, and if relevant an explanation of why a fee waiver is appropriate because the information is sought in the public interest and not for personal reasons

Alternatively, you can use the Student Press Law Center's State Open Records Law Request Letter Generator to produce a letter that complies with District of Columbia law.

The FOI Officer has fifteen days to refuse or comply with your request, except in "unusual circumstances," in which case an agency may extend the deadline up to ten working days. D.C. Code Ann. § 2-532(c), (d).

If you want a copy of the documents, you may need to pay a fee. The agency may charge you a fee that covers the actual costs of searching, reviewing and copying records. Note that you will be charged a lower fee (only the costs of duplication) if you can establish that your request is for a non-commercial purpose and that you are a representative of the news media. If the agency determines that furnishing the information is in the public interest, it may waive or reduce copying fees. You should state in your request why providing the requested records is primarily benefiting the general public and specifically request a waiver of fees as being in the public interest. See D.C. Code Ann. § 2-532(b).

Note that the law only applies to existing documents. The law does not require a FOI Officer to create a record in response to your request (but he may do so at his discretion).

What Are Your Remedies in the District of Columbia

Although not provided for in the D.C. FOIA, ask the FOI Officer to review his decision denying your request. If refusal is based on one of the exemptions, ask the officer to use his discretion to waive the exemption, or to provide the non-exempt portions of the record. If you have no success with the FOI Officer, you could try to appeal the decision to their seniors within the agency.

If you receive a formal denial letter, or no determination is made within the statutory time period, you are entitled to seek an administrative review. D.C. Code Ann. § 2-537(a).

An administrative review entails an appeal to the Mayor to overturn the agency’s decision. The Mayor has delegated this function to the Secretary of the District of Columbia. D.C. Code Ann. § 2-537(a). An overview of the procedure of appealing to the Mayor is set out in the Open Government Guide. Briefly, an appeal is instituted by sending an appeal letter to the Mayor, stating that it this is a "Freedom of Information Act Appeal", setting out legal arguments why disclosure should be granted and enclosing copies of the request and the denial. If the Mayor refuses to grant your appeal, or fails to respond within ten working days, you still have the option to file a lawsuit. D.C. Code Ann. § 2-537(a)(1).

If you wish to file a lawsuit to enforce compliance with your request, 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 government entity.



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