Citizens' Rights Under the Public Records Law (R.S. 44:1-41)
Anyone 18 or older has the right to examine, copy or obtain a copy of a public record (unless specifically exempted) of any public body including any state, parish or municipal agency or board (including the Legislature). Public records requests may be submitted by mail (by court ruling). Generally anything "having been used, being in use or prepared" for use in the conduct of public business is a public record, regardless of physical form. Public records include such things as drafts of documents, statistics, maps, letters, memos, budget requests, budgets, tapes, electronic data, payrolls, certain retirement information, and tax assessment rolls.
The public records law exempts certain records of state and local agencies and cites all exemptions found in other state laws. Federal laws and court rulings provide additional exemptions. In general, exemptions are designed to prevent disclosure of confidential medical and personal information; proprietary and financial data of individuals and businesses (including tax returns and some information regarding occupational licensing); and selected records of financial institutions.
Exemptions in the state public records law include records pertaining to a legislative investigation in progress and certain records of prosecutive, investigative, law enforcement and correctional agencies or public health investigators. Some law enforcement records become public once relevant litigation is settled or a final judgment of conviction is made.
The following information in an initial police report is public record: A narrative description of the alleged offense; its time, date and location; the name and identification of each person charged with the alleged offense or arrested for it; the property or vehicles involved and the names of the investigating officers. Subsequent investigations and reports are not public record.
Other exemptions include nonfinancial records in the governor's custody as well as internal municipal auditors' working papers until the audit is completed. Certain public employee information is exempt including unlisted home phone numbers, home addresses and phone numbers (at employee's request), Social Security numbers, personnel evaluations (by court ruling), and medical, insurance and some retirement records. Attorney and expert work product done in preparation for trial is exempt.
Exercising The Right to See a Public Record
A request for a record should be as specific as possible. A written request can provide documentation for subsequent action if the custodian denies the request. (See sample request letter.)
No fees may be charged for inspecting records during regular business hours. A requester may be asked to pay in advance if overtime is required to make a public record available.
The custodian of a record may ask for identification and proof of age. He is also allowed to ask whether a requester is a convicted felon. (A convicted felon who has exhausted all appeals may only request certain records.) A requester may also be required to sign a register. The custodian must provide "all reasonable comfort and facility" for reviewing the record. A copy must be provided, if requested, although a reasonable fee may be charged. The law directs state agencies to charge 25 cents per page for standard size copies. Other public bodies may charge what they deem to be "reasonable." These charges vary significantly among public bodies. An attorney general opinion has recommended that custodians follow the state agency fee schedule.
If not in "active use" when requested, the record must be "immediately presented." The custodian is required to delete the confidential portion of a record and make the remainder available. If it is unreasonably burdensome or expensive for the custodian to separate the public portion of the record from the confidential portion, the custodian must provide a written statement explaining why. If the record is in "active use," the agency must "promptly certify this in writing" and set a day and an hour within three working days from receipt of the request when the record will be available.
In the case of parish government, the custodian of records is the Parish Council Secretary.
If the agency says the record requested is not in its custody, it must "promptly certify this in writing" and "state in detail" the reason for the record's absence, its location and who has custody.
Sample Letter to Request Public Records
Dear Custodian of Public Record(s):
Pursuant to the Public Records Act of Louisiana, R.S. 44:1 et seq., I/we request the following public records be made available for inspection and/or copying:
[List either specific document(s) you are requesting or if you don't know, describe the information you are requesting as specifically as possible.]
Under the provisions of R.S. 44:32, if you raise a question as to whether the record requested is a public record, you are required to notify in writing the person making the request of your determination and the reasons, including the legal basis, therefor. Said notice shall be made within three days of the receipt of the request, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays.
Under the provisions of R.S. 44:33, if the public record is not immediately available you are required to certify this in writing promptly, and in your certificate fix a day and hour within three days, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays, for the exercise of the right granted in the Public Records Act.
Under R.S. 44:34, "If any public record applied for by any authorized person is not in the custody or control of the person to whom the application is made, such person shall promptly certify this in writing to the applicant, and shall in the certificate state in detail to the best of his knowledge and belief, the reason for the absence of the record from his custody or control, its location, what person then has custody of the record and the manner and method in which, and the exact time at which it was taken from his custody or control. He shall include in the certificate ample and detailed answers to inquiries of the applicant which may facilitate the exercise of the right granted by this Chapter."
If you are invoking R.S. 44:34 to deny this request, please answer the following questions in detail.
- Is a copy of the requested public record usually located in your office?
- Why is your copy of the requested public record absent from your office?
- Where is your copy of the requested public record?
- Who has received your copy of the requested public record?
- How and from whom did the present custodian gain control of your copy of the requested public record?
- What was the exact time your copy of the requested public record was taken from your custody and control?
- When will your copy of the requested public record be returned to your office?
- Is there any other public official who has a copy of the requested public record?
- State the name or names of anyone who has a copy of the requested public record?
- State the location(s) where the requested public record can be viewed.
- State the hours and dates when the requested public record can be viewed.
- Penalties for violating the Public Records Act include criminal prosecution.