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.
1. A framework:
What do you want to know?
What kind of documents are you looking for?
What is your endgame?
2. Write up your request.
Be specific in your request 95% of the time..
..be broad in your request for the other 5%.
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.
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 "personnel-hours" that need to go into processing the request/responsive documents. Many times federal agencies require fees without much insight.
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.
4. The waiting game.
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.
You are not completely defenseless regarding denials to your request. There are a few options here:
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 will happen. Agencies are required to cite exemptions within the state or federal public records law for redactions. They are often worth fighting.
(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
(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."
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
FOIA Lawyers generally like pro-bono work, specifically because FOIA violations usually result in compensation, and the cases aren't difficult. Usually 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.
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.