You don’t have to be an investigative journalist to gain access to the millions of documents, emails, computer files, photographs, audiotapes, films that are considered public records under the law.
It’s undeniable that news teams and advocacy groups have unveiled decades of sensational news as a result of requesting public records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a federal law that gives the public the right to access records from federal government agencies. Many also have tapped into the power of similar open records laws in local and state governments across the United States.
Filing a public record request amounts to a 101A lesson for someone researching cold cases—it’s considered an essential lesson. So buckle up!
With the FOIA and other open records laws, investigative journalists have revealed newsworthy revelations that span every possible topic—from the military and the environment to politics, religion and even unsolved cases.
As part of the National Freedom of Information #FOISummit21 Uncovered was pleased to host a panel discussion with Sarah Turney of Voices of Justice and Dissparences, Maggie Freleng of Murder Alliance, and Dana Poll of True Crime P.I. focusing on public records usage in uncovering answers and solving the cold cases of the murdered and missing. You can watch a replay of the panel discussion here.
Filing a public records request
You don’t have to be a journalist or a person with impressive credentials to gain access to public records. It’s your right. Without giving a reason, you have the authority to analyze and copy public records held by a government agency during business hours and under reasonable supervision.
With that said, it’s important to understand the process for making a request. Here are several steps you should follow to make a request for a public record.
1. Outline the type of information and records you need. You don’t want to make a random, general or oversized request for records. You could be waiting weeks or months to get the information. Try to be specific. As in the case of the truck drivers or the soldiers in the above investigative cases, the requesters wanted information that gave insights into patterns among a specific group of people. If you have dates to narrow down the period you want to review, all the better.
2. Determine which agencies likely have the records you want to analyze. If you’re investigating a series of murders in your area, you can ask for records from the local or state police department. You should be able to narrow down the department that has jurisdiction with a few simple questions.
If you’re seeking information about an autopsy, some of the details may not be available to you, depending upon the laws in that specific state. In most cases, the coroner must disclose to the public basic information in an autopsy report, including the name, age, address, sex, and race of the deceased; the location where the body was found and/or the location where the death occurred; the name of the person reporting the death; the name of the person certifying the death; date and location of an autopsy; the name of the person who performed the autopsy; and probable cause, probable manner, and probable mechanism of death.
However, other details that are included in a full autopsy report may only be provided to the family of the deceased and other government entities. The coroner may be authorized to keep photographs and videotapes confidential with the exception of other departments that are investigating the death.
3. Do your research for your state. As with autopsies, public record laws may vary from state to state. Conduct a simple search to determine the process and guidelines for public records requests in the state you’re interested in.
For example, North Carolina features a page dedicated to information about public records requests in that state—including procedures for court records (marriage licenses, criminal and civil cases, divorce judgments, police reports, etc.); background checks; county/city documents; prisoner records; wills and estates; and other documents.
You also may find that the information you’re looking for is already available through an online search. Although these features are not available for more than 75 percent of county and state governments, many do offer ways to research various records online, including Indiana, Georgia and Arizona.
To get an idea of which online resources are available in your state and county, start with a search at the BRB’s Publishing Public Records Authority, an up-to-date listing of government agencies that provide free online record searching and access to public record information.
Sites like these will give you the basic information you need before moving to the next step of making a request. If you can’t find what you’re looking for through an online search, go on to the next step.
4. Write and submit the request. It’s best to put your request in writing, whether you’re submitting it online, in person or via snail mail. It provides a record of what you have requested. If you haven’t written a letter in a while, don’t sweat it. It can be short and to the point.
Your letter can be formatted along these lines:
To Whom it May Concern:
I am requesting the following records under the (State) Public Records Act:
- Audio recording and/or transcript of testimony during a court case (give case, date and court, if possible)
- Police report (name of defendant, etc.)
Can you please send the records in an electronic format to:
- Your Name
- Your Email Address or Mailing Address.
(Telephone Number—Include your telephone number in case your request requires a follow-up question for clarification.)
5. Deliver the request. Your research online should have led you to at least one email address or mailing address for such requests. If in doubt, call the department to describe your request and the ideal email address to send your request. Make sure you maintain a copy of your request.
6. Wait to receive a response. In most cases, you should have received a response within a two-week period. If not, follow up to inquire about your request. If they ask for an extension, find out how long it will take. Then follow up again until you receive the documents you requested. In some cases, you may be charged a small fee for processing the request, especially if you are asking for printed copies.
7. Appeal, if necessary. If for any reason, the agency denies your request, you can reiterate your rights under the public records act in that state, especially if the response doesn’t seem legitimate. If a further review reveals that you, by all means, should have public access to the records, you can sue. Many investigative journalists have had to take this step to ensure their right to access public records.
Still, looking for help in filing a public record request?
You can access a multi-part Public Records Bootcamp from Uncovered and the National Freedom of Information Coalition in the Uncovered Community. The webinar series for citizen solvers, digital volunteers, and citizen detectives to learn the importance of and strategy for accessing public records in research; leading you through best practices for locating information, where to start, how to search, and what to look for in the process.
Take the next step in your case research and file a public record request. The information that you uncover could lead to answers in a cold case.