Q: I’m researching uses of force with the County Probation Department at juvenile halls and had questions about what kind of information is public vs. private.
A: I would be happy to answer any questions you have about accessing records and information related to the use of force in juvenile halls. Making a request for records under California’s Public Records Act would be a natural starting point in your search.
Under California’s Public Records Act, “‘[p]ublic records’ includes 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) – and must be disclosed upon request unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure.
We typically recommend submitting a written request to the agency from which you are seeking records, as this will compel a written response. Written PRA requests are fairly straightforward, but typically ask for categories of records that include, but are not limited to, correspondence, emails, notes, memorandums, electronic records, etc. After the request is received, the agency will have 10 days to respond to the request, though it may claim an additional 14 days under certain circumstances (but they’ll need to write to you and let you know they’re taking the additional time). The agency must disclose the records “promptly” after identifying whether it does indeed have records responsive to the request. Gov’t Code § 6253(c). Of course, if the agency is not meeting these statutory deadlines, you will want to follow up and remind it of its obligations under the Public Records Act to timely respond to PRA requests.
If the agency is claiming that certain records are exempt under the Act, it is required to cite the exemption and explain how its applies to the records. Gov’t Code § 6253(c). I don’t like to speculate as to which exemptions the agency or agencies that operate juvenile halls might claim in response to your request, but just be aware that agencies often try to shoehorn records into an exemption that might not apply when they don’t want the public to access those records.
Courts have consistently found that the exemptions contained in the Public Records Act are to be interpreted narrowly in favor of disclosure, and thus, agencies must do what they can to try to get a member of the public the records requested. So, for example, if a record contains certain information that is exempt from disclosure, the agency must redact that information, but make the rest of the record available. Government Code § 6253(a). To the extent that you may be stonewalled in your request, keep in mind that the agency is under a duty to assist members of the public in the interest of transparency and disclosure.
You may want to review Government Code § 6253.1 to familiarize yourself with the agency’s duties in this regard. Once you receive a written response from the agency or agencies, you can analyze any claimed exemptions and push back if necessary.
As for where to direct your request or requests, it seems there may be several different agencies that are in possession of records pertaining to use of force at juvenile detention facilities, including the local law enforcement agency that operates these facilities, as well as state agencies that provide oversight in connection with such facilities. Some agencies have information on their websites about how to submit a PRA request, which is often helpful because it ensures your request will go to someone familiar with the PRA and who will hopefully provide a timely response to your request. Other agencies, on the other hand, do not post such information on their website. In these situations, I typically either address the request to the agency head (e.g., the sheriff or the police chief), or, if known, to the head of the agency department that is in possession of the records I am seeking.
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner 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. No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.