Arizona Freedom of Information Act
What is the Arizona Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the law that grants people the right to request information from government establishments. By the establishment of this law, all agencies of government are obliged to make records available whenever they are requested by any member of the public, except those that are protected from disclosure. Arizona has its version of the Freedom of Information Act. This is called the Arizona Public Records Law. According to Section 39-121 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, record custodians in government agencies are obliged to release public records when they are requested by members of the public. The public records law requires all officers in state agencies and public bodies to make records of all their official activities. This is to make accounts of their services to the public and to account for public funds utilized. According to the Arizona Public Records Law, public bodies include the state, counties, cities, towns, school districts, and tax-supported districts in the state. It also includes branches, commissions, councils, and committees of these entities.
According to Section 41-151.18 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, all books, photographs, maps, documentaries, etc. produced or compiled by public officers in the course of official duties are classified as public records. These may be maintained in different forms and characteristics such as legal memoranda, calendars, policies, procedures, training materials, the tape recording of meetings etc. The Arizona Public Records Law was enacted in 1901. There was an amendment in 2000 to A.R.S. § 39-121 which clarified that public records must be in the custody of officers and not necessarily in the offices. The personal information of a public officer in an office email or other personal records belonging to them are not public records. A document needs to be related to the official duties of public officers before it may be classified as a public record in Arizona.
What is Covered Under the Arizona Freedom of Information Act?
The Arizona Public Records Law is designed to make government activities open to public scrutiny, but not to put people’s personal information in the open. Public records subject to disclosure in Arizona include physical and electronic forms of documents. Physical forms include correspondence, license applications, tax returns or bills, brochures, appraisals etc. Digital forms include electronic documents such as computer files, voicemail and text messages, videos, emails, network servers, CD/DVD, and USB drives.
In Arizona, anyone may request any document from the government or any of its agencies. They are not required to give the reason for which they need the document. They may only have to state if the document request is for private or for commercial use. A person may request a public record for commercial purposes, however, they may be required to pay some costs for such a public record request. Some of these costs may include:
- Certain amounts paid to the body maintaining the document before they may obtain the original or duplicate copies of the records.
- A reasonable fee, as may be required by the public body as the cost of time, materials, and personnel for the production of the document.
- An estimated commercial market value of the production of the document, as may be determined by the public body.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Arizona?
Records exempted from public access according to the Arizona Public Records Law include:
- Students records: Students’ academic records are required to be confidential. This is as demanded by one of the United States’ strongest privacy protection laws, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
- Research records: Intellectual property and information that are not made available to the public by their authors are not subject to disclosure
- Donor information: Donor information may contain sensitive details that require some confidentiality, hence they are exempt from public disclosure
- Records that may constitute an invasion of personal privacy
- Records which their disclosure may be detrimental to the best interest of the state.
- Adoption records
- Records of disciplinary actions and processes of some professional groups
- Some records from correction departments: The Department of Corrections in the state may withhold some records from public disclosure if they feel that the release of that document may be detrimental to the interest of the state
- Bank records: Certain details of bank activities may contain sensitive records and personal information, hence may not be subject to disclosure
- Trade secrets: Organizations have the right to protect their trade secrets and are not obliged to release such information to the public
- Some medical records: Personal medical records may not be released to the public unless the requesters also submit court orders authorizing the release of such records.
How Do I File an Arizona Freedom of Information Act Request?
To file a Freedom of Information Act request in Arizona, a person is required to determine and specify which records they wish to request. Before submitting a request, they must first determine which organization maintains the record required. Application for a public record request should be sent to the public officer in the applicable agency maintaining the records. Applicants may check online to locate the record custodian in the applicable agency through their website, or they can check using the Accessing Arizona Public Records online portal. For “non-commercial” document requests, an applicant may make a verbal request at the office of the record custodian. However, if an oral request is denied for any reason, they may make a written request addressed to the head of the public body. Note that the application should be specific and precise about the record requested. An Arizona Public Record Request Sample is provided by the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Arizona?
The inspection of public records in Arizona is generally free, although record custodians may require applicants for public records to pay the cost of making duplicate copies of documents as they may require. When records are made for personal use, the Arizona public records law does not require applicants to pay a fee. However, an applicant may be required to pay the cost of producing duplicate copies of documents they request. If an applicant only requests to inspect copies of a public record, but the public body will need to make duplicate copies of the document for the purpose, the applicant will not need to pay. If the applicant requests a duplicate copy of a document but they also offer to use their personal devices to produce the duplicate copies, they will also not be required to pay for duplication of the document. Record custodians shall not charge a fee for the duplication of public records requested for the purposes of:
- Making claims against the U.S government
- Making copies of police reports and transcripts for crime victims
If the request is made for documents to be used for commercial purposes, the record custodian may charge the applicant an estimate of the commercial value of the cost of making duplicate copies of the record requested.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Arizona?
After receiving a request for a public record, record custodians in government agencies are obliged to provide the information demanded promptly. According to the Arizona Agency Handbook put together by the Office of the Attorney General to guide state agencies, access to documents is deemed denied if a custodian does not respond to the request promptly. The handbook defines “prompt” as “quick to act or to do what is required” at once or without delay.
The Arizona Public Records Law does not state a specific time that record custodians must provide the documents requested. However, the time required to supply the document will depend on the type of document requested. Documents that are easily collated, like traffic accident reports and city budgets may be supplied on the same day or within a few days. Some documents take many steps to collate, involving details from more than one record, or they require detailed search that will take longer time to complete. Some records require more time for record custodians to review and determine if there are sensitive details on the original documents that need to be redacted before they are released. However, a person submitting a FOIA request may call the record custodian to ask about the progress of their request if they do not receive feedback after seven days. If the record custodian explains that the document may require a longer period of time to collate, the requester may negotiate with the custodian for a mutually agreeable schedule. They may also instruct the record custodian to make the documents available in batches as soon as they are available.
Where a public record request is delayed and the record custodian does not offer a convincing reason, it can be interpreted as a denial. An applicant may also seek advice from the Arizona Ombudsman-Citizen’ Aide. The Ombudsman is commissioned by the government to investigate complaints about public access laws, request testimonies, conduct hearings, report misconducts, and make recommendations. However, the last resort, following an FOIA request denial, is the court. An applicant may appeal the denial through a special action at the Superior Court. They may either win or lose at the court. Applicants who lose their court cases on public record requests still have the right to pursue their cases in the Court of Appeals or at the Arizona Supreme Court as the case may demand.