A&A: Can I Use the CPRA to access investigative files?

Q: I am trying to get investigative records from California’s Department of Consumer Affairs and the California Department of Justice for a complaint I am lodging against a former employer. How do I go about submitting such a request?

A: Investigatory records maintained by a law enforcement agency are generally exempt from disclosure, Gov’t Code section 6254(f), so it may be that records you request from the Department of Justice do not have to be disclosed.  Of course, you first should ask for the records, as they might not fall into that particular category of exempted records.

The vehicle for requesting records from public agencies in California is the Public Records Act.  Under the Act, public records — which include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics,” Gov’t Code section 6252(e) — are presumed to be open to the public and must be disclosed unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure.

We generally recommend submitting a request for public records to agencies in writing. Although not statutorily required, a written request should result in a written response, in which the agency, if it denies your request, should set forth the specific exemption that it is claiming justifies nondisclosure of the records, which will then give you the opportunity to respond with legal arguments as to why the records you seek should be disclosed. 

You can find additional information on the Public Records Act, including a sample request letter, on the FAC’s website at Access to Public Records 

Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.