A&A: What Is The “Actual Cost” An Agency Can Charge For Fulfilling A Public Records Request?

Q: I was charged $30 to obtain a copy of a traffic collision report for an accident that I was not involved in, but which destroyed my parked car. I looked up the California Vehicle Code that applies to traffic collisions, and it says the police department may not charge anything other than the “actual cost” of producing the record. My understanding of “actual” cost means that they may charge for what it costs to print the copies, not for labor, investigative work, or anything else. But can you point me to a resource that would explain what “actual cost” means so that I can try to get my city to change its fee policy?

A: Under the California Public Records Act (“PRA”), an agency can only charge for the “direct costs of duplication, or a statutory fee if applicable” when responding to a PRA request.  Govt. Code section 6253(b).  “Direct costs of duplication” has been interpreted narrowly, and one case specifically found an agency cannot charge for costs associated with searching for, reviewing or redacting information.  See N. Cnty. Parents v. Dep’t of Ed., 23 Cal. App. 4th 144 (1994).  The agency may be claiming, however, that the charge is permissible as a “statutory fee.”  (The FAC takes the position that statutory fees may only be authorized by the legislature; however, there is some disagreement on this point.  For further information, you might find this answer to a previous Asked & Answered query helpful.)  

In any event, if the agency has charged you a fee that you do not believe is proper, you may want to consider asking the agency for the specific authority upon which it is basing this fee.  If the agency cannot point to authority that allows such fees, and/or is charging an exorbitant per-page amount, then it may be the fees are not permissible under the PRA. 

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.