Duplication costs and “search fees”
Q: I recently filed a request with a number of local health departments in California for copies of the last two routine health inspection reports for certain restaurants in their respective jurisdictions. Several of these jurisdictions have sent me invoices which include “search” fees. For example, I filed a request with a Health Dept, and they sent me an email detailing a $29 search fee and $2 in copying costs. I am happy to pay for copying costs, but is it within the confines of the law for them to charge me the search fee? Any info you can provide to me would be greatly appreciated.
A: Under the California Public Records Act (Government Code section 6250 et seq) a governmental entity is only entitled to the cost of running the copy machines and conceivably also the expense of the person operating it. The cost of duplication does not include the time spent retrieving, inspecting, and handling the file from which the copy is extracted. North County Parents Organization for Children with Special Needs v. Department of Education, 23 Cal. App. 4th 144, 146 (1994). In the North County case, the court expressly disapproved of a fee that reflected not only copying expenses, but also “staff time involved in searching the records, reviewing records for information exempt from disclosure under law, and deleting exempt information.” Thus, it appears that it is not within that particular Health Dept.’s powers to charge the $29 search fee detailed in your bill.