The Commonwealth of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ensures you, as a citizen, that there are safeguards to enforce government accountability. It allows you to study and analyze how your tax dollars are spent, review decisions made, how conversations are conducted at government meetings, and perhaps at the top of the list, you can access public records of all sorts. You may need a criminal background check on a potential employee, or you are owed money and want to check if the borrower has filed bankruptcy; or need to know the name of a person who owns property near you. All of this information is available to the public.
Citizens need to make public records searches every day. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, not all documents are easy to access. Like never before, government agencies are opting to leave paper files behind and store records in digital and video form instead. It is important to understand what records are available through the FOIA.
Public records include tax liens and judgments, criminal records, court records, property information, bankruptcy rulings, birth and death certificates, marriage and death certificates, property and land records, government meeting agendas and minutes, as well as criminal and court records.
Public records are not limited to only written documents, video recordings are held as public records also. Videos taken from police vehicle dash cameras, body-worn cameras, public transit cameras, and government building security recordings are all considered public records. Videos of routine meetings like city commission meetings and city budget workshops are also included.
In many cases, you can retrieve public records on your own, right at your home computer. However, other times it takes a written or email request, or a trip to the government agency in question.
How To Request Public Information
To make an FOIA request, you should gather contact information before you begin. A robust list of public information contacts can be found to aid you in your work by visiting the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.
Once you have the contact information, a written or emailed request is recommended, so the representative retrieving the information has a clear understanding of what is needed. Be as specific as possible in your request. Identify what records you need, including names, dates, and location, if applicable. The agency is required to respond to the request within five business days.
Although the public is allowed to request records, there are times an agency will not be able to honor the request. However, the agency must reply to the request and explain why a record cannot be distributed. Some reasons include the document being part of a criminal investigation, attorney-client privilege, an active administrative investigation, private (but not all) 911 caller information, health records, and many records involving juveniles.
Because many public records require time to research, redact or duplicate, there is potential for the requester to be charged a fee. If there is a fee, the person making the request will be notified in advance. If the cost is more than $200, the agency can request a deposit before producing the record.
Tips For Requesting Video Footage
These days, it is not uncommon for individuals involved in court cases to use video footage for evidence. However, because multiple devices are often used, requests need to be clear and detailed.
In making the request, along with your name and contact information, include the location of the incident, the date of the event, and details about anything specific you would like from the video. Include camera locations whenever possible. For example, if the request is for police video and multiple officers with body cameras who responded to an event, you will want to send a second request once you have the police report and 911 CAD report to include all responding units.
Although gathering public records is not always easy and roadblocks will pop up, the more an individual performs and collects research, the easier it becomes. For more information and to see the details of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, visit https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title2.2/chapter37/.
At Curcio Law, we use FOIA requests to collect evidence that can be used in our cases to help prove our client’s case. FOIA requests are an extremely helpful tool in proving liability in a personal injury case.
If you have had issues accessing public records or need more information about the Freedom of Information Act, call us at 703-836-3366, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit curciolaw.com.
Rakin Hamad joined Curcio Law as an associate in August 2018 after graduating from George Mason Law School. During law school, Rakin demonstrated his dedication to client advocacy and was a member of the trial advocacy association, the pro bono society, and the George Mason Law Review. His approach to the law mirrors the firm’s philosophy of treating each client with commitment, compassion and character. Contact Rakin at email@example.com.