Can I insist on the original record?

Can I insist on the original record?

Q: I have for many years inspected and made copies of original documents after recordation at the County Recorder’s Office. This is part of my business. Now the county has cut off my access to these original papers, saying they are not public records. The county is now selling record copies on CD for about $500 per month. Their copies lose much information of interest to me (for example, taped on notary statements, white-out alterations, blood stains, etc. – – I’ve seen it). I believe since the county USES the original documents and RETAINS them for a time that they should be PUBLIC RECORDS while in government custody. Do I have any legal options?

A: It is not clear on what basis the recorder’s office is claiming that the documents that are being recorded are not public records. If the county is selling collections of the recorded documents to the public, then it is clearly retaining copies of the recorded documents. Perhaps the recorder’s office is allowing you access to copies of the documents but not to the original documents?

The Public Records Act provides that “[e]xcept with respect to public records exempt from disclosure by express provisions of law, each state or local agency, upon a request for a copy of records that reasonably describes an identifiable record or records, shall make the records promptly available to any person upon payment of fees covering direct costs of duplication, or a statutory fee if applicable. “Upon request, an exact copy shall be provided unless impracticable to do so.” Cal. Gov’t. Code Section 6253(b) (emphasis added).

If there is information in the original document that is not in the copy, then it can certainly be argued that the copy is not an “exact copy.” You might have an argument that you are entitled to access original documents to the extent that you can establish that there is information in the originals that is not in the copies (as you describe). We are not aware, however, of any particular authority construing the Public Records Act with respect to copies versus original documents.

Best of luck to you in your efforts.

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