A guide to public records requests for advocates seeking reform of the criminal legal system

Table of Contents
Public Records Overview
What is the law in my state?
Accessing records when you are incarcerated
What information on the criminal legal system is considered a public record in my state?
What is a public record and what isn’t?
Is there a faster, easier way to get the information I want?
Who should I request records from?
Making a records request
Tips for making a request
Strategies when you need a fast response.
Sample state public records request.
Drafting a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
Requests to the federal government can take a long time.
What to do when your request is ignored or denied.
Footnotes
Appendices
Appendix 1: State law summary.
Appendix 2: Restrictions on public records access for people who are incarcerated or under community supervision.

Every state and the federal government has laws that give the public access to most government information. Accessing these records can provide individuals and organizations with information that can help fuel campaigns for change. However, getting the information you need can be difficult because:

  • States, territories, and the federal government all have different rules establishing who can access records, how they may be accessed, and what information is available; and
  • You cannot get a government agency to make a new document for you — you can only get documents that currently exist, meaning that you may have to find ways to translate what you need to know into requests that the government can fulfill with the information it already has on hand.

This guide will aid you in navigating these challenges and more. It will help you figure out what types of information about the criminal legal system you can get through public records requests, what the public records laws are in your state, how to draft a request and who to send it to, how to fast-track your request when dealing with the tight timeline (see sidebar below), and how to troubleshoot common problems in ways that may sometimes seem counterintuitive or surprising.



Public Records Overview

What is the law in my state?

Each state has its own public records laws. These laws not only define what a public record is, but they outline what records and what government offices are exempt from public records laws, whether requests must be submitted by state residents, and the state’s deadline for response. A table explaining who may submit a records request, the deadline for response, and consequences for failing to respond is available in the state law summary appendix table.1

Facts about requesting public records in New Jersey

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See facts about requesting public records in

Accessing public records when you are incarcerated or under community supervision.

Some states place restrictions on public records access for people who have had contact with the criminal legal system.

Some states place restrictions on public records access for people who have had contact with the criminal legal system. These restrictions vary. For example, some restrict access to people who are incarcerated and on community supervision, some relate to all public records requests, and some restrict access to records maintained by certain agencies (such as the Department of Corrections). If one of these laws exist in your state and applies to you, see if a friend or ally who can access the records you’re seeking is willing to submit a records request for you.

Appendix Table 2 provides information about states that limit access to public records for people who are incarcerated or on community supervision.

What information on the criminal legal system is considered public record in my state?

The types of police, prison, parole, and probation records you can get through a public records request, as well as what records are not available, differ by state. The Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press provides details on what types of records you can access in each U.S. state and the District of Columbia (see section III(O)-(P) in your state’s profile, or browse the full list of what prison, parole, and probation records are available in each state).

For information on what records are exempt from disclosure, see the sidebar “What is a public record and what isn’t?”

What is a public record, and what isn’t?

We explain what types of records you can get through a public records request and what records you can’t.

Public records are pieces of non-confidential information that have been written, recorded, documented, or filed by public agencies at the federal, state, or local level.

Despite their name, public records are not always available online, in digital format, or free of charge. Oftentimes, public records are obtained by submitting a written request under a state public records law — sometimes referred to as an open records law, sunshine law, or freedom of information law — or the federal Freedom of Information Act.

A wide range of materials may qualify as public records, including:

  • Agendas
  • Algorithms
  • Audio
  • Calendars
  • Calendars
  • Contractor agreements
  • Contracts
  • Court records
  • Directives
  • Emails
  • Inspection reports
  • Investigatory files
  • Letters
  • Manuals
  • Maps
  • Meeting Minutes
  • Memoranda
  • Metadata
  • Notes
  • Papers
  • Permits
  • Photographs
  • Policies
  • Receipts
  • Reports
  • Statistics
  • Surveillance footage
  • Talking points
  • Text messages
  • Video

While certain types of records are generally exempt from public disclosure (i.e., attorney-client communications, personal information, records regarding national security), each state and the federal government have established laws outlining what records are exempt from public disclosure — and which you therefore cannot access through a records request. For some state-specific guidance about what criminal justice information is accessible in your state see sections II and III of your state’s profile in the Open Government Guide published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. If your request is going to a federal agency, FOIA.gov provides a general overview of when records can be withheld pursuant to federal law.2

In addition to these exempt records, agencies are not required to create new information or organize existing information in new ways for a specific records request, even if the underlying data is “public.” This means that if you are asking for something that an agency does not track, such as “the number of requests for proposals submitted for a jail construction project,” you may be told that the information does not exist and need to amend your request to ask for all the proposals received in order to be able to determine the number yourself. This could result in you receiving (and potentially paying for) thousands of pages rather than a single number.

Is there a faster, easier way to get the information I want?

Before making a request you should check to see if the information you are seeking is already available. Getting the information you need without a records request will save you time and potentially money.

Be sure to try:

  1. Government websites
    • Some state and local government websites have extensive data about the criminal legal system, while others provide little information. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) provides a national overview of the criminal legal system, and offers lots of comparable state-by-state data. However, much of the data BJS publishes is not updated as quickly as that published by state or local agencies, so it’s worth looking locally first. To learn more about the information available from these and other data sources, see our data sources guide.
    • FOIA.gov provides a tool to search the websites of all federal agencies at once in order to determine what information is already available. Some agencies, like the Bureau of Prisons, have Freedom of Information Act libraries set up that make certain Freedom of Information Act records available online, explain the exemptions to agency disclosure, and compile other agency materials, such as research and reports, policies, and forms.
  2. MuckRock maintains records requests and responses to various federal, state, and local actors collected by the site’s members. It’s quite possible someone has already made your request, or one close enough to it to do the trick!
  3. Direct requests
    • To journalists: If you are seeking information that you know a journalist has obtained from a government agency—for example after reading a story they wrote about it—you can reach out to the journalist and ask if they would share the information with you, and if that fails, you can submit a records request for the records the agency sent to that journalist.
    • To government officials: If you have developed a working relationship with a government official, or at least know them to be friendly, sometimes it’s fastest to call them directly and simply ask for the information. In our experience, this seems to succeed most often when dealing with local offices.

Who should I request records from: Who holds what information?

Different agencies in the criminal legal system hold different pieces of information. While the names of relevant agencies will differ, the information that they hold is similar across the U.S. In thinking through where the information you are seeking is kept, it’s helpful to think about what part of the system you want to know about (i.e., federal, state, or local; pretrial, sentencing, or post-release; juvenile, immigration, or criminal court, etc.).

While the list of relevant agencies will differ based on jurisdiction, the list below is intended to describe information each type may possess, as a starting point.3

  • Police departments maintain data on: calls for service, dispatch communications, arrests (i.e., demographics, types of charges, geography), stops, searches, policies, guidance, and databases they maintain.
  • Prosecutors’ offices maintain information on cases, such as: referrals from law enforcement (i.e., demographics, types of charges, geography), cases filed and potentially bail or other decisions made during the course of a case, data on prosecutor-led diversion, and the disposition/resolution of cases.
  • Some jurisdictions have separate agencies that provide pretrial services. These agencies maintain records regarding employee training, finances, services, and databases or programs used, including risk assessment tools.4 Client management tools maintained by these agencies may track demographic information, release recommendations, and other information.
  • Public defenders’ offices maintain financial records, personnel records, training materials, data sharing agreements, diversion program participation, and other information related to management, administration, and operations.
  • Courts maintain information on the number of types of cases filed, bail determinations, dockets and judicial calendars, case histories, and case outcomes.
  • County or municipal sheriffs’ offices and state and federal corrections departments maintain data related to admissions, daily population numbers, demographics, status (pretrial or convicted), custody information (i.e. where people are held), when and why people are released, deaths in custody, financial data, programming information, intergovernmental agreements (e.g., jail beds available to state prison systems, ICE or the U.S. Marshals Service), policies and procedures, personnel data, and other conditions-related information. Departments of Corrections often also track information related to recidivism and, in some states, oversee probation and parole.
  • Probation and community supervision offices may maintain information related to risk assessments, personnel information, training materials, policies and procedures, and data, including information about probation and parole violations, revocations, and demographics of their supervised populations.

In addition, you can request record retention policies, lists of the categories of information that agencies hold,5 requests for proposals, and contracts from any of the above agencies.

However, as discussed above, some of the records above may be exempt from disclosure under public records laws.



Making a records request

Tips for making a request: Choose your words carefully.

  1. Be clear about the information you want.
    • Consider what data points would be the most helpful in answering the questions you have.
    • Do your research. For example, if you are looking for information contained in a certain document, try to identify the specific document.
    • Set specific parameters. This often includes setting a time frame (e.g., “from 2017 to present”).
  2. Be flexible.
    • All the information you want may not be available. For this reason, flexibility can be important when drafting a request and in following up with the agency you submitted a request to.
  3. Include language to make the process smoother.
    • You can request a government agency produce information in a particular format that will make processing the data easier, if the information is already available in that format.6 Examples:
      Please provide the requested information by email7 in machine-readable format.
      We request this data be provided via email in a Microsoft Excel or .csv document.
    • Anticipate fees, and request a waiver of costs upfront.8 In some instances, agencies require the request for fee waivers to be made at the outset. The Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press has compiled a helpful guide on state fee waiver laws. Examples:
      I request a waiver of all fees for this request. Disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in my commercial interest. [Include specific details, including how the requested information will be disseminated by the requester for public benefit.]9
      I request a waiver of all fees because the information is not being sought for commercial purposes and its disclosure is in the public interest and will contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of __________________ (include short summary of what you are seeking to understand).
    • In addition to requesting a fee waiver, ask that if an agency is going to charge you for fulfilling the records request, they contact you if the cost will be more than a specific amount of your choosing (e.g., $25). Example:
      If there are fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me if the cost will exceed $____.
    • Ask that if an agency does not have all of the records requested that they identify who does. Example:
      If your agency does not maintain these records, please provide me the proper custodian’s name and address.
    • Offer to discuss the scope or terms of the request. Example:
      If you have any questions regarding this request, please do not hesitate to reach out.

Strategies when you need a fast response.

We have found that several additional strategies can help elicit faster responses from government agencies.

We have found that several additional strategies can help elicit faster responses from government agencies:

  1. Ask for as little as possible. Craft a narrow request that does not ask for more than you need. You do not want to burden the government with a big request that takes a long time to process, or burden yourself with something that requires a lot of money or staff time to handle.
  2. Emphasize that you are looking for answers to questions, regardless of the form the answers come in. For example, ask for X, or Y, or Z, or anything that might tell us about X, or Y, or Z. While you are not supposed to ask vague questions, giving a range of materials could prevent back and forth with the government agency and may elicit a faster response if the person responding to your request can find a way to respond and close out your request as having been completed.
  3. Give examples to make compliance easier. For example, if you are looking for a specific report, like a Securus commission report, and know that Securus commission reports always look the same, attach or provide a link to an example of one of these reports from another county.
  4. State what you are willing to pay. Directly including the amount you are willing to pay can save you time by eliminating the back and forth with an agency about the cost of producing the records you requested.
  5. See if the agency has an online submission process. If an online submission process is offered, using it could save you calendar time. However, if you are sending a lot of similar requests to multiple agencies, it will probably save staff time to mail merge paper request letters.
  6. Do not obsess over getting the exact right recipient. Find the best name, address, and/or email you can, and ask that if they are the wrong recipient, that they forward it to the correct one.

Sample state public records request.

Sample public records request language is provided below. The state law summary appendix table, can be used to fill in the records request with the information specific to each state. For other helpful tools and templates, see the sidebar “Student Press Law Center and National Freedom of Information Coalition State Records Requests.”

[Date]

[Recipient Name]
[Address]
Sent via [email / U.S. mail]

Dear [Name],

I request, pursuant to the state open records law [provide statutory citations in column B], copies of the following documents:

*	[Provide a clear description of the documents you seek] 
*	[Provide a clear description of the documents you seek]
*	[Provide a clear description of the documents you seek]

Please send the documents to me via [email/U.S. mail] in [description of any ways you want the document formatted - i.e., machine readable format] within [column d].  If you choose to deny this request, please provide a written explanation for the denial including a reference to the specific statutory exemption(s) upon which you rely. If a portion of these documents are exempt from disclosure, provide all segregable portions. If your agency does not maintain any of the requested records, please let me know who does and include the proper custodian's name and address. 

I request a waiver of all fees because the information is not being sought for commercial purposes and its disclosure is in the public interest and will contribute significantly to the public's understanding of [explanation of why you want to know]. However, if there are fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me if the cost will exceed $25.00, otherwise invoice me with the records.  

If you have any questions about this request, please do not hesitate to contact me at [email] or [phone number]. 

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely, 

[Signature]
[Signature block]
 

You can download a Word version of this template letter here.

 

Student Press Law Center and National Freedom of Information Coalition State Records Requests.

These resources can make crafting your letter much easier.

The language used in the sample request is largely based on the “Letter Generator” template tool used by Student Press Law Center. We made some adjustments based on the recommendations provided in the section above.

The Student Press Law Center Letter Generator is a fillable template where you can select a state and fill in the information you want to receive from an agency in that state, your contact information and the agency contact, and the amount you are willing to pay. It will then generate letters for you online, in HTML, but the language does not include a request for fee waiver, and will default to requesting a response for a records request in 10 days if state law does not establish a strict timeline for response. This tool does include information about the penalties agencies may be subject to if they fail to respond. These penalties are outlined by state in the state law summary appendix table.

The National Freedom of Information Coalition also provides public records request samples for each state. There is no tool on their website to populate these samples with information related to your particular request, but these sample requests provide language requesting a fee waiver and provide more details about when the state requires a response by (if there is not a hard deadline). Unlike the Student Press Law Center Letter Generator, the sample requests do not include information about potential penalties the state may be subject to if it fails to respond.

It is worth noting that neither of these tools will alert you, when selecting or creating a letter, if state law requires that the request come from a resident of the state. See “What’s the law in my state?” for information on residency requirements.

Drafting a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

There are a number of useful, free tools that can be used to draft Freedom of Information Act requests.

  • FOIA.gov allows you to search for government agencies and divisions. It provides links to agency websites and Freedom of Information Act libraries, contact information including the name of Freedom of Information Act Public Liaisons, the average time it took each agency to process requests in 2020, FOIA reference guides and regulations for each agency, and a FOIA request tool.10
  • iFOIA is a website where you can create a free account and then create, send,11 and track Freedom of Information Act requests to federal agencies.12
  • The National Freedom of Information Coalition provides templates for Freedom of Information Act requests and appeals (in the event of nonresponse) that can be copied from their website. If you use these templates, FOIA Mapper provides a useful tool for identifying the correct agency contacts, emails where Freedom of Information Act requests can be submitted, agency websites, as well as links to online request forms.13

Requests to the federal government can take a really long time. Consider alternatives.

Depending on the agency, it can sometimes take quite a while to receive a response to a federal FOIA request, particularly a complex one.

Depending on the agency, it can sometimes take quite a while to receive a response to a federal FOIA request, particularly a complex one. For example, FOIA.gov notes that the average processing time for complex FOIA requests in 2020 was: 109 working days for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 441 working days for the Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, 412 working days for the U.S. Marshals Service, and 426 working days for the Office of the Pardon Attorney. However, the U.S. Parole Commission, took an average of only 32 working days to respond to complex FOIA requests in 2020. Simple requests were responded to by these agencies much more expediently.

Because of the wide discrepancy in how long an agency takes to respond to requests, consider (a) the complexity of the request, (b) the length of time the agency normally takes to respond to such requests, and (c) if the information is available through other sources, before submitting a federal FOIA request.

Troubleshooting problems: What to do when your request is ignored or denied.

If you do not receive a response

Send the agency a follow-up email, or better yet, give them a call to confirm that they received your request. Picking up the phone and calling an agency is often the quickest way to receive a response, clarify any outstanding questions, tailor your request, and avoid disputes or lengthy email exchanges.14 Example:

I submitted a records request on January 14, 2021 and haven’t received a response yet. Did you receive it?

Track the days that you reached out to the agency, as well as the names of any people you speak to or leave messages for. If you do not get a response to follow-up emails or phone calls, try to send an e-mail documenting the days that you have tried to reach the agency. Example:

I write in regards to the records request I submitted on January 14, 2021 (attached). I left messages on 2/1, 2/7, 2/16, and 3/4, and have not yet received a response.

Please contact me at [email] or [phone]. I look forward to speaking with you.

You may also find it helpful to know how long state or federal agencies typically take to respond to a request. MuckRock provides average response time for states, which could differ significantly depending on the agency, and FOIA.gov provides the average response time for most federal agencies.

If you have been quoted a high price and are trying to reduce the cost

If the agency quotes a price for responding to your records request that is more than you can afford, call the records custodian at the agency and ask if there are particular parts of your request that are driving the price up. If there are, consider whether you can (1) eliminate costly requests, or (2) reduce the scope of the request. For example, you could reduce the number of records that an agency needs to search for and produce by changing the time frame. Rather than requesting all records from 2010-present, ask yourself whether records produced over a shorter period of time (e.g., 2018-present) would still give you the information you most need.

If you have been told that it is going to take a significant amount of time to fulfill your full request

If you have requested a lot of records and are told that it is going to take some additional time before your request can be fulfilled, work with the agency to break up your request into smaller parts, prioritize the most timely parts, and ask to receive records as they become available.

If you have been told the agency does not keep the information you requested

Agencies may state that they do not have the information you requested for multiple reasons. For example, the agency you submitted a records request to may not be the keeper of the information, or the agency may not have the information compiled in the way you requested.

  • If an agency does not hold any of the information requested, they should provide you with information on what agency, if any, holds the requested information. See the sample records request above for an example of language you can use.
  • If an agency does not have the data you requested compiled or otherwise tabulated, you may have to think through what records the agency does keep that would allow you to get the information you are looking for (or something close to it). Remember, agencies are not required to create new records or organize existing information in new ways.

    Example: Imagine you submit a response to an Advisory Board of Pardons looking for information on the number of people, over 10 years, who (1) applied for a pardon, and (2) the Board recommended receive a pardon. You receive a response stating that that the Board does not keep these numbers. In response, you could ask for (1) applications for pardons the Board received over the past 10 years and (2) recommendations for pardons the Board made to the Governor over the past 10 years.

If your request is denied

Some states have appeals or mediation processes for when a records request is denied. In addition, you may appeal denials of federal Freedom of Information Act requests. The National Freedom of Information Coalition provides a template that can be used in appealing these denials. You can also generate appeals though iFOIA.




Appendices

Appendix 1: State Law Summary.

Resources used in collecting the above information include the Open Government Guide published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center. The Student Press Law Center’s Public Records Letter Generator served as the initial source for “Consequences for Failing to Respond” column.

We updated information when we came across changes to state laws. If you identify additional changes that should be made to your state’s information, please contact us.
State State Law Must the records request be submitted by a person in the state? Deadline for Response15 Consequences of Failing to Respond
Alabama Ala. Code §§ 36-12-40 to 36-12-41 Possibly.

State law says any citizen may request a record—it does not specify that the person must be a citizen of Alabama. However, a 2018 opinion from the Alabama attorney general stated that “[i]ts axiomatic that an Alabama statute that references the rights of a citizen denotes the rights of a person who is a resident of this state.” This means that some agencies may respond to requests from people who are not residents of Alabama, while others may deny these requests.
State law does not establish a time limit.

However, a 2008 attorney general opinion said that the custodian of the records requested could not cause any unreasonable delays. See Op. Att’y Gen. Ala. No. 2008-073 (Apr. 21, 2008).
Alabama courts have awarded court costs and attorney fees to parties who have successfully sued for access to public information. In addition, state law establishes that those who knowingly fail to comply with a lawful request for records are guilty of a class A misdemeanor. Ala. Code §§ 13A-10-12(a)(3)-(b).
Alaska Alaska Stat. §§ 40.25.100 to 40.25.350 No State law does not establish a time limit.

However, the state administrative code requires that state executive agencies provide records requested of them within 10 business days of the time a request, with a sufficient description of the records requested, is received. 2 Alaska Admin. Code tit. 2, § 96.325(a); see also id. § 96.900(7).
Failure to comply with Alaska open records law can result in the award of court costs and attorney fees. In addition, state law imposes criminal penalties on those who knowingly suppress or conceal a public record. Alaska Stat. §§ 11.56.815 and 820(a)(2).
Arizona Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 39-121 to 39-128 No State law does not establish a time limit.

It only notes that records should be provided in a prompt fashion. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 39-121.01(D)(1).
A willful violation of Arizona open records law can result in the award of legal costs, including damages and reasonable attorney fees. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 39-121.02.
Arkansas Ark. Code Ann. §§ 25-19-101 to 25-19-110 Yes 3 business days Under Arkansas law, a person who negligently violates the state’s open records law “shall be guilty of a Class C misdemeanor” and could be assessed attorney fees and other litigation expenses. Ark. Code Ann. §§ 25-19-104 and 107(d).
California Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 6250 to 6276.48 No 10 days A willful violation of California open records law can result in the award of court costs and reasonable attorney fees. Cal. Gov’t Code § 6259(d).
Colorado Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 24-72-200.1 to 24-72-402 No 3 business days A violation of Colorado open records law can result in the award of attorney fees and costs. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-72-204(5)(b).

(As of March 1, 2022, a willful and knowing violation of the Criminal Justice Act, Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 24-72-301 to 309, will be considered a petty offense. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-72-309.)
Connecticut Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 1-200 to 1-242 No 4 business days Failure to comply with Connecticut open records law is a class B misdemeanor. See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-240(b).
Delaware Del. Code Ann. tit. 29, §§ 10001 to 10005 Possibly.

It has been determined that Delaware’s public records law only requires that government agencies respond to requests from citizens of the state, but “public bodies may, and are encouraged to, fulfill FOIA requests” submitted by individuals who who do not live in Delaware. So, if you do not live in Delaware you may receive a response, but the law does not require that the state respond to you.
15 business days A violation of Delaware open records law can result in the award of attorney fees and court costs. Del. Code Ann. tit. 29, § 10005(d).
District of Columbia D.C. Code §§ 2-531 to 2-540 No 15 business days, generally

25 business days for body-word camera recordings
A violation of D.C. open records law can result in the award of reasonable attorney fees and other costs of litigation. D.C. Code § 2-537(c).
Florida Fla. Stat. §§ 119.01 to 119.15 No State law does not establish a time limit.

However, an “unreasonable delay” in providing records could be considered a denial.
A willful violation of Florida open records law can result in your being fined up to $1,000, imprisoned for up to one year, or both. Fla. Stat. § 119.10; see also Fla. Stat. §§ 775.082, 775.083. Litigation costs and attorney fees may also be awarded. See Fla. Stat. § 119.12.
Georgia Ga. Code Ann. §§ 50-18-70 to 50-18-77

If requesting records from a court, records requests should be made under Ga. R. Super. Ct. 21.
No 3 business days A willful violation of Georgia open records law can result in the award of reasonable attorney fees and other costs of litigation. Ga. Code Ann. § 50-18-73(b).
Hawaii Haw. Rev. Stat. §§ 92F-1 to 92F-43

Haw. Code R. ยง 2-71-13
No 10 business days A violation of Hawaii open records law can result in the award of reasonable attorney fees and other costs of litigation. Haw. Rev. Stat. § 92F-15(d).
Idaho Idaho Code Ann. §§ 74-101 to 74-126 No 3 business days A deliberate and bad faith violation of Idaho open records law can result in a fine of up to $1,000. Idaho Code Ann. § 74-117. An unjustified refusal to disclose public records can result in the award of reasonable costs and attorney fees. Idaho Code Ann. § 74-116(b).
Illinois 5 Ill. Comp. Stat. 140/1 to 140/11.6 No 5 business days A violation of Illinois open records law can result in the award of reasonable attorney fees. 5 Ill. Comp. Stat. 140/11(i).
Indiana Ind. Code §§ 5-14-3-1 to 5-14-5-12 No 7 days for responses submitted in writing A violation of Indiana open records law can result in the award of reasonable attorney fees, court costs, and other reasonable expenses of litigation. Ind. Code § 5-14-3-9(i).
Iowa Iowa Code §§ 22.1 to 22.16 No State law does not establish a time limit. A willful or knowing violation of Iowa open records law can result in a fine of up to $2500, the award of all costs and reasonable attorney fees. See Iowa Code § 22.10(3)(b)-(c).
Kansas Kan. Stat. Ann. §§ 45-215 to 45-254 No 3 business days In Kansas, the denial of access to a public record that is not in good faith and without a reasonable basis in fact or law can result in the award of costs and reasonable attorney fees. Kan. Stat. Ann. § 45-222(d).
Kentucky Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 61.870 to 61.884, 61.991(2) Probably.

Kentucky residents and non-residents can request records, but only Kentucky residents are actually covered under the state public records law, so only they can seek to enforce their rights under the law if their request is denied.
5 business days A willful violation of Kentucky open records law is a class A misdemeanor and can result in a fine of up to $25 for each day that access to the requested records are denied, as well as the award of attorney fees and costs. See Ky. Rev. Stat Ann. §§ 61.882(5), 61.991(2).
Louisiana La. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 44:1 to 44:41 No 3 business days A willful violation of Louisiana open records law can result in fines of up to $2,000 and imprisonment of up to six months, or both. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 44:37. Additionally, if a court finds you unreasonably, capriciously, or arbitrarily withheld records or failed to respond to a request, it may award damages, attorney fees, and other costs of litigation, for which you can be held personally liable. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 44.35(E). In addition, you may be required to pay up to $100 per business day for failing to respond to a request. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 44.35(E).
Maine Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 1, §§ 401 to 434 No 5 business days A willful violation of Maine open records law can result in a fine of up to $500. Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 1, § 410.
Maryland Md. General Provisions Code Ann. §§ 4-101 to 4-601 No 30 days16 A willful violation of Maryland open records law can result in a fine of up to $1000 and the award of actual damages, reasonable counsel fees and other litigation costs. Md. General Provisions Code Ann. §§ 4-362(d), (f).
Massachusetts Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 66, §§ 10 to 18 No 10 business days A willful violation of Massachusetts open records law can result in a fine of up to $500, imprisonment of up to one year, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 66, § 15, and the award of court costs and attorney fees, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 66, § 10A(d)(3).
Michigan Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 15.231 to 15.246 No 5 business days A violation of Michigan open records law can result in a court award of reasonable attorney fees, costs, and disbursements. Mich. Comp. Laws § 15.240(6). An arbitrary and capricious violation of the law can also result in punitive damages of up to $1,000 and a civil fine of $1,000. Mich. Comp. Laws § 15.240(7).
Minnesota Minn. Stat. §§ 13.01 to 13.99 No State law does not establish a time limit.

It only notes that records should be provided in an “appropriate and prompt manner.” See Minn. Stat. § 13.03(2)(a).
A violation of Minnesota open records law can result in a court award of costs and reasonable attorney fees. Minn. Stat. § 13.08(1). In addition, a willful violation can result in a damage award of $1,000 to $15,000, Minn. Stat. § 13.08(1), constitutes a misdemeanor, and is considered just cause for suspension without pay or dismissal. Minn. Stat. § 13.09.
Mississippi Miss. Code. Ann. §§ 25-61-1 to 25-61-19 No 7 business days A violation of Mississippi open records law can result in a fine of up to $100 and all reasonable litigation expenses. Miss. Code Ann. § 25-61-15.
Missouri Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 610.010 to 610.225 No 3 business A purposeful violation of Missouri sunshine law can result in a fine of up to $5,000 and the award of court costs and attorney fees. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 610.027(4).17
Montana Mont. Code. Ann. §§ 2-6-1001 to 2-6-1014, and Mont. Const. art. II, § 9 No State law does not establish a time limit. The Montana Constitution recognizes a person’s “right to know.” This includes the right examine documents of public bodies and governmental agencies. If a court finds that the right to know has been violated “may be awarded costs and reasonable attorney fees.” Mont. Code Ann. § 2-3-221.
Nebraska Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 84-712 to 84-713 No 4 business days A willful violation of Nebraska the open records law may result in removal or impeachment. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712.09. It is also a class III misdemeanor, Rev. Stat. § 84-712.09, which can result in a fine of up to $500, imprisonment for up to three months, or both, see Neb. Rev. Stat. § 28-106. Reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs may also be awarded. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712.07.
Nevada Nev. Rev. Stat. §§ 239.001 to 239.340 No 5 business days A violation of Nevada open records law may result in the award of court costs and attorney fees. Nev. Rev. Stat. § 239.011(2). Intentional concealment of a public record is a category C felony in Nevada, punishable by up to 5 years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. Nev. Rev. Stat. § 239.320; see also Nev. Rev. Stat. § 193.130.
New Hampshire N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 91-A:1 to 91-A:10, and N.H. Const. part 1, art. 8. No 5 business days A violation of New Hampshire open records law can result in the award of court costs and attorney fees. See N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 91-A:8(I).
New Jersey N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 47:1A-1 to 47:1A-11 No

While the text of New Jersey’s public records law states that “government records shall be readily accessible for … examination by the citizens of this State,” the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has advised that the public records law “does not prohibit access to residents of other states.”
7 business days A violation of New Jersey open records law can result in the award of reasonable attorney fees. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 47:1A-6. Additionally, a willful violation of the open records law is punishable by fines of up to $1,000 for an initial violation. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 47:1A-11(a).
New Mexico N.M. Stat. Ann. §§ 14-2-1 to 14-2-12 No 3 business days A violation of New Mexico open records law can result in the award of damages of up to $100 per day, court costs, and reasonable attorney fees. See N.M. Stat. Ann. §§ 14-2-11(C) and 14-2-12(D).
New York N.Y. Pub. Off. Law §§ 84 to 90 No 5 business days An unreasonable violation of New York open records law can result in the award of court costs and reasonable attorney fees. N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 89(4)(c).
North Carolina N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 132-1 to 132-11 No State law does not establish a time limit.

However, state law does require that “upon payment of any fees” permitted under the law, that public records be furnished “as promptly as possible.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-6(a).
A violation of North Carolina open records law can result in the award of reasonable attorney fees, for which you may be held personally liable. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-9(c).
North Dakota N.D. Cent. Code §§ 44-04-17.1 to 44-04-18.32, and N.D. Const. art. XI, § 6 No State law does not establish a time limit.

However, the North Dakota Attorney General has noted that the time within which “[a] public entity must respond to an open records request … will usually be measured in a few hours or days rather than several days or weeks.” N.D. Op. Att’y Gen. 98-O-22 (1998).
Concealment of government records by a public servant in North Dakota is a class C felony, punishable by five years’ imprisonment, a fine of $10,000, or both. N.D. Cent. Code §§ 12.1-11-05, 12.1-32-01(4).
Ohio Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §§ 149.011, 149.43 to 149.44 No State law does not establish a time limit.

However, it does require that records be “promptly” and “within a reasonable period of time.” Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 149.43(B)(1).
A violation of Ohio open records law can result in the award of court costs and reasonable attorney fees. See Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 149.43(C).
Oklahoma Okla. Stat. tit. 51, §§ 24A.1 to 24A.32 No State law does not establish a time limit.

However, state law does provide that records must be promptly provided. 51 O.S. § 24A.5(6).
A willful violation of Oklahoma open records law is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500, imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, or both. Reasonable attorney fees may also be awarded. Okla. Stat. tit. 51, § 24A.17(A).
Oregon Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 192.001 to 192.868 No 15 business days18 A violation of Oregon open records law can result in the award of litigation costs, disbursements and reasonable attorney fees. See Or. Rev. Stat. § 192.431(3).
Pennsylvania 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 67.101 to 67.3104 No19 5 business days A violation of Pennsylvania open record law can result in the award of court costs and reasonable attorney fees. See 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 67.1304(a). In addition, denial of access to a public record that is made in bad faith could result in a fine of up to $1,500. See 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 67.1305(a).
Rhode Island R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 38-2-1 to 38-2-16 No 10 business days A knowing or willful violation of Rhode Island open records law can result in a fine of up to $2,000 as well as the award of attorney fees and court costs. R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-9(d).
South Carolina S.C. Code Ann. §§ 30-4-10 to 30-4-165 No 10 business days for records that are up to 24 months old

20 business days for records more than 24 months old
An arbitrary or capricious violation of South Carolina open records law is punishable by a fine of up to $500, damages, reasonable attorney fees and court costs. § .C. Code Ann. §§ 30-4-110(C), (F); see also § .C. Code Ann. § 30-4-100(B).
South Dakota S.D. Codified Laws §§ 1-27-1 to 1-27-48 No 10 business days An unreasonable and bad faith violation of South Dakota open records law can result in the award of costs, disbursements, and a civil penalty of up to $50 “for each day that the record or records were delayed.” § .D. Codified Laws §§ 1-27-40.2.
Tennessee Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 10-7-503 to 10-7-512, 10-7-701 to 10-7-702, and 10-8-101 to 10-8-103 Yes 7 business days for requests submitted in writing A knowing and willful violation of Tennessee open records law can result in the award of all reasonable costs involved in obtaining the records, including attorney fees. Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-505(g).
Texas Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. §§ 552.001 to 552.353 No State law does not establish a time limit.

However, the law does require that records be produced “promptly,” which is defined as “as soon as possible under the circumstances, … within a reasonable time, without delay.” Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 552.221(a).
A violation of Texas open records law committed with criminal negligence is a misdemeanor and can result in a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment of up to six months, or both. See Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 552.353(e). A court may also award litigation costs and reasonable attorney fees. See Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 552.323.
Utah Utah Code Ann. §§ 63G-2-101 to 63G-2-901 No 10 business days An intentional violation of Utah open records law is a class B misdemeanor, which can result in a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment. Utah Code Ann. § 63G-2-801(3); see also Utah Code Ann. § 76-3-204(2), Utah Code Ann. § 76-3-301(1)(d). A court may also award litigation costs and reasonable attorney fees. See Utah Code Ann. § 63G-2-802(2).
Vermont Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 1, §§ 315 to 320 No 3 business days A violation of Vermont open records law can result in the award of litigation costs and reasonable attorney fees. Vt. Stat. Ann. Tit. 1, § 319(d). The law also states that disciplinary action can be taken against an employee who arbitrarily or capriciously withholds public records. Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 1, § 320(a).
Virginia Va. Code Ann. §§ 2.2-3700 to 2.2-3715 Yes 5 business days A willful violation of Virginia open records law can result in a fine of up to $2,000, for which you can be held personally liable. Va. Code Ann. § 2.2-3714(A). Court costs and reasonable attorney fees may also be awarded. Va. Code Ann. § 2.2-3713(D).
Washington Wash. Rev. Code §§ 42.56.001 to 42.56.904 No 5 business days A violation of Washington open records law can result in a fine of up to $100 for each day access to a record is denied, and an award of litigation costs, including reasonable attorney fees. Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.550(4).
West Virginia W. Va. Code §§ 29B-1-1 to 29B-1-7 No 5 business days A willful violation of West Virginia open records law is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not less than $200 nor more than $1,000, or imprisonment in the county jail for up to twenty (20) days, or both. W. Va. Code § 29B-1-6. Court costs and attorney fees may also be awarded. W. Va. Code § . 29B-1-7.
Wisconsin Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31 to 19.39 No State law does not establish a time limit.

However, state law does require that records be provided “as soon as practicable and without delay.” Wis. Stat. § 19.34(4)(A). And, the Wisconsin Public Records Compliance Guide, published by the Wisconsin Department of Justice states that, for simple requests, 10 business days is generally a reasonable response time.
A violation of Wisconsin open records law can result in the award of court costs, reasonable attorney fees, and actual damages of not less than $100. In addition, if a court determines that the violation was arbitrary or capricious, it may award punitive damages and issue a fine of up to $1,000. Wis. Stat. § 19.37(2)-(4).
Wyoming Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 16-4-201 to 16-4-205 No 7 business days20 A knowing and intentional violation of Wyoming open records law is punishable by a fine of up to $750 and an award of damages. Wyo Stat. Ann. § 16-4-205.


Appendix 2: Restrictions on public records access for people who are incarcerated or under community supervision.

This information was gathered by using the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Open Government Guide. If there are restrictions in your state that are not included here, please contact us.
State Source Provision or interpretation of state law
Alabama Person v. State Department of Forensic Sciences, 721 So. 2d 203 (Ala. Civ. App. 1998) In Person, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals upheld a trial court determination that it did not violate state public records law for an agency to refuse to copy and mail records to a person who is incarcerated. The Court held that because the person who was incarcerated was provided “an opportunity to copy and/or to inspect the requested documents” (at the agency’s office “between the hours of 8:00 am and 5:00 pm Monday through Friday”), the agency had not violated state public records law.
Arkansas Ark. Code Ann. § 25-19-105(a)(1)(B)(i)(a) [A]ccess to inspect and copy, including without limitation copying through image capture, including still and moving photography and video and digital recording, public records shall be denied to:

(i) A person who at the time of the request has pleaded guilty to or been found guilty of a felony and is incarcerated in a correctional facility; and

(ii) The representative of a person under [the above] subdivision … of this section unless the representative is the person’s attorney who is requesting information that is subject to disclosure under this section.”
Connecticut Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-210(c) Whenever a public agency receives a request from any person confined in a correctional institution or facility or a Whiting Forensic Hospital facility, for disclosure of any public record under the Freedom of Information Act, the public agency shall promptly notify the Commissioner of Correction or the Commissioner of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the case of a person confined in a Whiting Forensic Hospital facility of such request, in the manner prescribed by the commissioner, before complying with the request as required by the Freedom of Information Act. If the commissioner believes the requested record is exempt from disclosure pursuant to subdivision (18) of subsection (b) of this section, the commissioner may withhold such record from such person when the record is delivered to the person’s correctional institution or facility or Whiting Forensic Hospital facility.
Kentucky Ky. Rev. Stat. § 197.025(2), (4) (2) KRS 61.870 to 61.884 to the contrary notwithstanding, the department shall not be required to comply with a request for any record from any inmate confined in a jail or any facility or any individual on active supervision under the jurisdiction of the department, unless the request is for a record which contains a specific reference to that individual.

(4) KRS 61.870 to 61.884 to the contrary notwithstanding, the Department of Corrections shall refuse to accept the hand delivery of an open records request from a confined inmate.”
Louisiana La. Rev. Stat. § 44.31.1 For the purposes of this Chapter, person does not include an individual in custody after sentence following a felony conviction who has exhausted his appellate remedies when the request for public records is not limited to grounds upon which the individual could file for post-conviction relief under Code of Criminal Procedure Article 930.3. Notwithstanding the provisions contained in R.S. 44:32, the custodian may make an inquiry of any individual who applies for a public record to determine if such individual is in custody after sentence following a felony conviction who has exhausted his appellate remedies and the custodian may make any inquiry necessary to determine if the request of any such individual in custody for a felony conviction is limited to grounds upon which such individual may file for post-conviction relief under Code of Criminal Procedure Article 930.3.
Michigan Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 15.232(g) “Person” means an individual, corporation, limited liability company, partnership, firm, organization, association, governmental entity, or other legal entity. Person does not include an individual serving a sentence of imprisonment in a state or county correctional facility in this state or any other state, or in a federal correctional facility.
Ohio Ohio Rev. Code § 149.43(B)(8) A public office or person responsible for public records is not required to permit a person who is incarcerated pursuant to a criminal conviction or a juvenile adjudication to inspect or to obtain a copy of any public record concerning a criminal investigation or prosecution or concerning what would be a criminal investigation or prosecution if the subject of the investigation or prosecution were an adult, unless the request to inspect or to obtain a copy of the record is for the purpose of acquiring information that is subject to release as a public record under this section and the judge who imposed the sentence or made the adjudication with respect to the person, or the judge’s successor in office, finds that the information sought in the public record is necessary to support what appears to be a justiciable claim of the person.

For case law on this topic see State ex Rel. Sevayega v. Reis, 88 Ohio St. 3d 458, 727 N.E.2d 910 (Ohio 2000), State Larson v. Cleveland Pub. Safety Director, 74 Ohio St. 3d 464, 659 N.E.2d 1260 (Ohio 1996), and State ex Rel. Steckman v. Jackson, 70 Ohio St. 3d 420, 639 N.E.2d 83 (Ohio 1994).
West Virginia West Virginia Freedom of Information Act Handbook, citing

State ex Rel. Wyant v. Brotherton, 214 W. Va. 434, 589 § .E.2d 812 (W. Va. 2003)
An inmate may not use the Freedom of Information Act, W. Va.Code § 29B-1-1 et seq., to obtain court records for the purpose of filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus. Instead, an inmate is bound to follow the procedures set out in the Rules Governing Post-Conviction Habeas Corpus Proceedings in West Virginia for filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus and to obtain documentation in support thereof.
Wisconsin Wis. Stat. § 19.32.3 “Requester” means any person who requests inspection or copies of a record, except a committed or incarcerated person, unless the person requests inspection or copies of a record that contains specific references to that person or his or her minor children for whom he or she has not been denied physical placement under ch. 767, and the record is otherwise accessible to the person by law.


Footnotes

  1. For more details about the laws in your state, click on your relevant state on MuckRock’s “How open is your government?” page or review the Open Government Guide for your state published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.  ↩

  2. MuckRock provides additional information how you may be able to push back when a federal agency withholds information for one of these reasons.  ↩

  3. Information provided under a number of these categories comes from a presentation provided by data and demographics reporter, Geoffrey Hing.  ↩

  4. Many of our allies are concerned about risk assessment tools, so if you are planning to send a records request about risk assessment tools you should check Mapping Pretrial Injustice’s database, which provides details about risk assessment tools being used across the United States. The information you are looking for may already be available online.  ↩

  5. Agencies sometimes provide very detailed lists of the type of records they keep. In addition, these lists may be available online. Accessing these lists can help you identify the what types documents will provide you with the information you need.  ↩

  6. Including this language about your preferred format for the data can save you — and the government — a lot of time. As a letter from New York advocacy groups explained, government agencies will often convert “dozens or hundreds of pages” of “machine readable tabular data, like MS Excel spreadsheets, into PDF files, which are not machine readable.” When the information produced is not machine readable, “public interest groups, advocates and others must spend extraordinary time and expense to retrieve information that would take a moment to find if the data was machine readable.”  ↩

  7. Request responses be provided electronically. Do not worry about what the statute says about how documents will be produced. While you cannot require documents to be provided in electronic format, the reality is that most records are already in electronic format, we want to use them in an electronic format, and it is cheaper and easier for the government to send us electronic documents, so it never hurts to ask.  ↩

  8. The majority of state public records laws allow for fees to be waived for reduced — “only nineteen states lack any type of waiver or exemption from public records fees.” However, the fact that a state does not include a provision to waive or reduce fees, does not mean that it cannot waive part or all of the cost for producing public records. For example:

    • “Mississippi law does not provide a fee waiver but allows records custodians to ‘consider the type of information requested, the purpose or purposes for which the information has been requested and the commercial value of the information’ when setting fees. Miss. Code Ann. § 25-61-7 (2019),” and
    • “California law does not include a fee waiver provision but allows individual state agencies and local governments to adopt their own records policies, which has enabled local governments to enact fee waivers of their own. See CAL. GOV’T CODE § 6253 (Deering 2020).”

    See Kelly Cox & Matthew Haber, Does Freedom of Information Mean “Free?”: How the Hidden Costs of FOIA and Open Records Laws Impact the Public’s Ability to Request Government Documents, N.Y.U. J. LEGIS. & PUB. POL’Y QUORUM (2020).  ↩

  9. This example comes from the First Amendment Coalition’s sample records request, which offers other helpful language as well.  ↩

  10. Some agencies have their FOIA system linked to FOIA.gov and some do not. For those that do, you can submit a request online through FOIA.gov. The FOIA.gov form includes the ability to request a fee waiver and note the amount of money you are willing to pay in fees. For agencies that do not have their FOIA system linked to FOIA.gov, but have created an online form to submit FOIA requests, FOIA.gov links to the online submission form.  ↩

  11. According to iFOIA, some federal agencies do not accept Freedom of Information Act requests submitted electronically, so the ability to send records electronically through iFOIA is limited.  ↩

  12. iFOIA also allows you to create, send, and track records requests for some state actors. The number of agencies listed can vary dramatically from state-to-state.  ↩

  13. FOIA Mapper also provides some other helpful information about each federal agency, which could help you anticipate how long you may be waiting for a response. Data points provided about federal agencies include the average wait time for a response to simple and complex requests, the percent of requests that are denied, the most recent reported backlog of requests, and how an agency’s response rate compares to other federal agencies.  ↩

  14. It’s always a good idea to send a follow-up email documenting any adjustments made to the request, confirming any timelines that were discusses, or detailing any other relevant information from these calls.  ↩

  15. The true meaning of these deadlines differs by state. For example, in some states, these deadlines represent (a) when there needs to be an acknowledgement that your request has been received, or (b) the date by which a request must be denied. In other states, there may be a requirement that records be produced as soon as is reasonably possible, with these deadlines representing when you should, generally, receive all responses by. And, in other instances, state laws allow these deadlines to be extended due to “unusual” or “extenuating” circumstances, for “reasonable” or “good” cause, and when records are not readily available.  ↩

  16. If a responsive record is located, it is supposed to be produced immediately, but the time taken to gather records, review them to make sure that they are covered under public records law, and produce them is not supposed to exceed 30 days.  ↩

  17. Missouri has both a sunshine law and a public records law. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “generally, every record that could be obtained under the Public Records Law could also be obtained under the Sunshine Law.” However, the public records law only covers residents of the state. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 109.180.  ↩

  18. Receipt of the records request is supposed to be acknowledged within 5 business days. Or. Rev. Stat. § 192.324(2).  ↩

  19. However, the public records law (known as the “Right-to-Know Law”) requires that the “requester” be a “legal resident of the United States,” meaning that the law does not grant undocumented individuals the right to access records. See 65 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 67.102 (definition of “requester”).  ↩

  20. However, if records are immediately accessible, they are supposed to be released immediately. If they are not immediately accessible, the person who submitted the records request must be notified within 7 business days and the records must be released no later than 30 calendar days from the date the notification was sent, “unless good cause exists preventing the release.”  ↩



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