Public Records Requests (FOIA) Workshop

Lucy Parsons Labs

What is a Public Records Request?

  • A tool to obtain data/records from (most) public agencies.
  • i.e., a means to dig into nagging questions you have regarding both local and federal government.

What is considered a "Public Record"?

This can differ from state to state, but you can try for any tangible record created or maintained by government employees. Here is how the Illinois FOIA statute defines a Public Record:

(c) "Public records" means all records, reports, forms, writings, letters, memoranda, books, papers, maps, photographs, microfilms, cards, tapes, recordings, electronic data processing records, electronic communications, recorded information and all other documentary materials pertaining to the transaction of public business, regardless of physical form or characteristics, having been prepared by or for, or having been or being used by, received by, in the possession of, or under the control of any public body.

Who can make a Public Records Request?

  • Federally, citizens and non-citizens with some exception.
  • Only three states require in-state residency and proof of such.
  • There are other restrictions sometimes (inmates).
  • In Illinois (at least): Anonymous requesters.
  • Others on your behalf.

What should I know before filing a Public Records Request?

  • Research the contact information for the agency's FOIA/Public Records department and how to send them a request.
  • Know your state/federal FOIA laws (the more you know, the better).
  • What others have been able to request (note that all FOIA requests are public).
  • Understand that the process can be a long one.

The Process

1. A framework:

What do you want to know?

What kind of documents are you looking for?

What is your endgame?

The Process

2. Write up your request.

Be specific in your request 95% of the time..

..be broad in your request for the other 5%.

The Process

to the point

The Process

3. After the request is acknowledged by the agency, they have a time limit to respond to the request. They can, however, extend this by some means.

dragging feet?

The Process

Some agencies will require fees to be paid for the amount of work. Sometimes state agencies quantify fees by breaking down the amount of work and "man-hours" that need to go into processing the request/responsive documents. Many times federal agencies require fees without much insight.

Don't trust fee estimates.

Many states have limits on the costs agencies can charge for requests. You can challenge an agency if you believe it is has set an unrealistic price via an appeal or lawsuit. Other times, they have no right to charge for records at all. Reading the local statute helps. Agencies, especially police departments, often lie about how much work needs to be done.

The Process

cheese

The Process

cheese

The Process

4. The waiting game.

jeoporady theme blares

The Process

At this point (after the waiting) a number of things can happen:

5a. You will hopefully be endowed with responsive records from the agency.

5b. You might get be asked to narrow your records.

5c. You might have your request denied for various reasons.

5d. No response at all.

Denials

denied :(

Denials

denied :(

Denials - Fighting Back

You are not completely defenseless regarding denials to your request. There are a few options here:

  1. Appeal (often must be ~20 days after rejection)
  2. Seek legal aid.

Denials - Fighting Back

that's better :)

Redactions

take a walk

Redactions

Exemption (b)(6) permits the government to withhold all information about individuals in "personnel and medical files and similar files" when the disclosure of such information "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

Redactions

Redactions will happen. Agencies are required to cite exemptions within the state or federal public records law for redactions. They are often worth fighting.

beware of the blob

Exemptions - Federal-level

(b)(1) - classified for "National Security"

(b)(2) - internal personnel rules

(b)(3) - exempt by any other statute

(b)(4) - trade secrets/commercial financial info

(b)(5) - "Privileged" memos/letters

Exemptions - Federal-level

(b)(6) - Privacy (personnel or medical files)

(b)(7) - Law enforcement records (can be vague)

(b)(8) - Financial institution regulatory records

(b)(9) - "Geological and geophysical information an data, including maps, concerning wells."

Exemptions

forbidden donut

Exemptions

"Pentagon claims list of information exempt from FOIA is exempt from FOIA" forbidden donut

Exemptions

where am i

Tips

"Mulligan"

You can always re-send a (botched, rejected, etc) request to an agency. This also applies to re-sending the same request a seperate individual has made in the past to an agency.

Tips

"Prove it."

Sec. 1.2. Presumption. All records in the custody or possession of a public body are presumed to be open to inspection or copying. Any public body that asserts that a record is exempt from disclosure has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that it is exempt. (Source: P.A. 96-542, eff. 1-1-10.)

Tips

Tell them.

Never submit requests in the form of a question. Agencies are not obliged to respond to these. Always make sure to state what you are looking for, not ask if it exists.

Tips

Dig through records.

Many agencies have FOIA portals available to see the requests others have submitted in the past and their responses, but you can always FOIA an agency for their internal FOIA logs.

Tips

my log has something to tell you

Tips

MuckRock is your friend:

www.muckrock.com

rocks

Tips

Use public forms.

Some agencies have a decent amount of forms, directives , procedures, and program information available on webpages or databases that are public facing. This can help you research or prepare for FOIA requests. Additionally, public news reports sometimes contain good hints .

Tips

data

Tips

Divide & Conquer.

Sometimes a request may be denied for being unduly burdensome . Agencies use this denial often. In most states there is a "balancing test" between the public's right to know and the burden placed on the agency's operations. Sometimes it may be easier to split up a request into smaller requests and file multiple smaller requests at the same time for the information.

Tips

Process Transparency.

Think you're FOIA request may have been mishandled? You can always file a seperate request asking for how a FOIA request was processed with the respective agency. Just Remember to cite the request number and when it was submitted within your new request.

Tips

Deciding when to sue.

FOIA Lawyers generally like pro-bono work, specifically because FOIA violations usually result in compensation, and the cases aren't difficult. Usuaully you'll want to sue if the agency has completely ignored your request, has continued to double-down on very expensive fees, or the appeals process has awarded you nothing. There are guides.

Tips

Building larger projects.

After numerous FOIA requests and lawsuits, Lucy Parsons Labs—in collaboration with Muckrock, independent journalist Joel Handley, and the Chicago Reader—liberated the full record of CPD’s forfeiture income and expenditures from 2009 through 2015.

Happy Filing!

sanjin@lucyparsonslabs.com

jake@lucyparsonslabs.com

matt.chapman@freeourinfo.com