The Arizona public records law is very user friendly. Unlike the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Arizona public records law is simple, straight forward, and easy to understand. Materials available include police reports, financial records of public entities, employment records, maintenance records of forensic laboratories, and much more. To give you an example of how broadly the public records law sweeps, emails and text messages between public employees, discussing official business, are obtainable as pubic records. Star Publishing Co. v. Pima County Attorney’s Office, 181 Ariz. 432, 891 P.2d 899 (Div. 2, 1994).
In order to know if you can obtain a public record in Arizona, you need to answer only a few simple questions. First, is the information you seek a public record? If the information was performed by a public official in performance of their duties, invariably it is. Second, is the information confidential by statute and regulation? Typically, these involve such things as medical records, home addresses of law enforcement officials, or similar records. Very few of the records that you will be seeking will be rendered confidential by statute or regulation. Carlson v. Pima County, 141 Ariz. 487, 687 P.2d 1242 (1984).
Lastly, the Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that disclosure of public records may be avoided when the “best interests of the State” outweigh the public’s need for disclosure of the information. While this may seem complicated, it rarely applies. This would apply only in circumstances where the State can point to significant harm from disclosure, not some made-up excuse. Carlson.
Assuming the material that you seek is a public record, and not rendered confidential by statute or regulation, you simply request it with a letter (some agencies have a form). If requesting records from an out of town agency, you can request that they be mailed to you. Unless you are using the records for a commercial purpose, the fee for the records should be reasonable. Most public agencies in Arizona are aware of their obligations under the public records law and will comply. A few, most notoriously, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, are uncooperative.
The resistence of a public agency to a public records request typically falls into a couple of areas. First, you may request reports describing an investigation by a law enforcement agency. Sometimes, the agency will respond that the investigation is still pending, or that the report is incomplete. Arizona appellate courts have ruled that the fact that an investigation is still pending, or that a report is in draft form, is not reason to deny the public records request. If the report is in draft form, the law enforcement agency should disclose the draft. Only in circumstances where the agency can point to irreparable harm to their pending investigation is the fact that the investigation is pending reason for non-disclosure. Cox Arizona Publications, Inc. v. Collins, 175 Ariz. 11, 852 P.2d 1194 (Sup. 1993).
Another typical dodge is to state that the requested information might contain privileged or confidential material. If the haystack of information that you are seeking might contain a needle of confidential information, the remedy provided by the law is clear. The public entity is required to remove the needle, and disclose the haystack of public information. They should then seek an in camera review of the requested of confidential information to ensure that it is protected. Star Publishing Co. v. Pima County Attorney’s Office, 181 Ariz. 432, 891 P.2d 899 (Div. 2, 1994).
Arizona public records law is one of my hobbies. If you are having an issue obtaining records under the Arizona public records law, please write to me and I will be happy to assist if I can.
Michael J. Bloom