If you’re writing true crime or memoir, fiction loosely based on true events or digging into a hot newsworthy topic, sometimes our research leads us to information or records from state and federal government agencies. Often this type of information isn’t readily accessible. If this is you and you’re unsure how to obtain necessary government records for your creative projects, then get acquainted with the Freedom of Information Act, otherwise known as FOIA.
What is FOIA?
State and federal freedom of information laws allow citizens to request valuable information from government agencies. Under most FOIA laws, any record created or controlled by a government regulatory agency, law enforcement department, cabinet and military offices, government commissions, government-controlled corporations, the Executive Office of the President, and other organizations of the Executive Branch or similar state governments, must be disclosed unless the information contained in the records is covered by a specific exemption. Maybe you want department emails or PowerPoint slides or internal memos. Maybe you need case files, including police records. For the writer, whether journalist or author, FOIA is a powerful and easy tool in your research arsenal.
FOIA requests are pretty straightforward but can be a huge investment of time and effort. While FOIA requests can be made to any agency for access to public records, not all documents are accessible to the public. For example, with police records, a writer can access a mint of information, like cleared suspects, witness interviews, crime scene photos, and additional evidence like 911 tapes, warrants, and dispatch records. Or with government agencies, a journalist can assess detailed records like meeting minutes, calendars of public officials, and agency memos. But some documents are outside the scope of FOIA requests. For example, classified records, trade secrets, and personal/medical records are exempt from public disclosure. If a criminal case is still open (no determination of innocence or guilt yet), any document request will most likely be denied, or severely limited.
While state and federal freedom of information laws can vary, FOIA requests allow you to specify the format for how you would like to receive the records (printed or electronic form). The agencies, however, are not required to create these for you, nor will they conduct research, analyze data, or answer questions when responding to such requests. Usually, the FOIA requester is required to pay for searching and making copies of the archival material. Be aware that fees for FOIA requests can be pricey depending on what and how much is being copied.
Making FOIA Requests
Federal FOIA requests require no special forms. FOIA requests from state agencies may vary as to the process so check first before submitting. Here’s a handy link that lists each state’s freedom of information laws.
In the case of federal FOIA requests, all that is required to request public information from a government agency is a letter with a reasonable description of the records you want which you submit to the agency’s FOIA office or the person who handles FOIA requests. If you are having trouble determining who at an agency should receive your FOIA request, you can call the agency first to find out who is in charge of records requests. For example, the chief or the town clerk may handle requests from a local police department. Most federal agencies accept FOIA requests electronically (via web forms, email, or fax). Same with most state agencies too.
If you need more information on which federal agency to contact for your FOIA request, see this page. If you need more information on the basics of FOIA, see this page.
FOIA Response Time
Response times vary depending on the jurisdiction, the agency, and the complexity of the request. State laws usually have time requirements for a response. California agencies must respond in ten days and in writing with the request fulfilled or why it is denied. If you do not receive a response, follow up. Simple requests, ones that seek a few pages of a record, are processed faster than complex requests, which seek a high volume of material or require searching records in multiple locations.
Should your request be denied, freedom of information laws allow you to appeal. If your appeal is denied, you have the option to sue. Organizations like the New York Times often sue. Freelance writers and authors, however, may find a lawsuit for public records a waste of valuable time and resources.
Example FOIA Request
If you need to submit a FOIA request, here’s a template. Make sure you mold this example to fit the FOIA requirements of the state or federal government agency of your choice and for the type of information requested.
Agency Head [Freedom of Information Act Officer, FOIA contact person, or person in charge of records requests]
Name of Agency [e.g. Local Police or Sheriff’s Department]
City, State, Zip Code
Re: Freedom of Information Act Request
Dear [Freedom of Information Act Officer, FOIA contact person, or person in charge of records requests]:
Under the [Freedom of Information Act or the state records act you are using, like California Public Records Act (Govt. Code 6250-62700)], I request the following documents and information from your department: [identify the documents or information you want, be as detailed as possible, like all criminal reports, incident reports, investigation reports relating to suspect XYZ in case ABC].
I am willing to pay up to a maximum of $[_____] in fees for the request. If the fees will exceed this limit, please inform me prior to processing my request. [You might request a waiver of all fees for this request, noting that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest. But do not count on getting the fee waiver. If you do not want to put a $ figure down, ask the department to estimate the cost of your request before processing it.]
If you have any questions regarding this request or need additional information, please contact me at [phone number and/or email].
I look forward to receiving your response within the statutory time period of [X days]. Please notify me at the contact information above when these records [and additional information requested] are available for pick-up.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
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Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Use the resources above to find and consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation. See the disclaimer link in the footer of our website for more information.