A&A: Attempting to access phone call recordings made from jail

A: I want to request a copy of the recordings or transcripts of phone calls placed by an inmate at the County Jail. Are there cases or laws that I can use in my request to argue for releasing this media?

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Q: Under the California Public Records Act (“PRA”), 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.

“Writings” include “every…means of recording upon any tangible thing any form of communication or representation, including…sounds…and any record thereby created, regardless of the manner in which the record has been stored.”  Gov’t Code section 6252(g).Some of the PRA’s exemptions are specific and defined, while others are relatively broad and often broadly applied by governmental agencies.

The Sheriff’s Office may very well attempt to fit these recordings into some exemption. However, until you make the request, it is difficult to anticipate what they might claim.  I therefore suggest making a simple and straightforward PRA request for the County Jail recordings you seek.

If you make a written request to the County Sheriff’s Office, it must determine whether the recordings are disclosable within 10 days of your request, and “promptly notify” you, in writing, if it will make the records available, or specifically state the reasons the records are exempt from disclosure.  Gov’t Code § 6253(c).

The Sheriff’s Office must also state the estimated date and time when disclosable records will be made available.  Gov’t Code § 6253(c).  The PRA requires the Sheriff’s Office assist you in making a focused and effective request that reasonably describes identifiable records.  Gov’t Code § 6253.1.

You can find more information on this website about the Public Records Act, including a sample request letter.

If the Sheriff’s Office is unresponsive or claims an unwarranted exemption, you may then want to argue your entitlement to the records, and inform the Sheriff’s Office’s that should you be compelled to bring a lawsuit to enforce your request, they would be required to pay your attorney’s fees should (or when) you prevail. Gov’t Code § 6259.

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.