Contributed by Prince William County
There is a common misconception that obtaining public records requires a formal process. However, the reality is that all you have to do to obtain public records in Virginia is ask. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) assures that public documents are to be made readily available and that there is no hindrance to obtaining them.
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act governs how public documents are managed by public entities. While there are some exemptions to what is deemed public (for example, personnel files, legal counsel, working papers, etc.), these are limited and clearly defined to ensure that the public receives requested records held by a “public body or its officers and employees.” FOIA also requires admittance to all public meetings without hindrance.
In general, once a request is submitted to the custodian of the records (the person or department who possesses the records), the public body has five business days to respond in one of the following ways:
- Provide the requested documents;
- Deny the request entirely pursuant to a specific provision of law;
- Provide the records in part, or deny the records in part, pursuant to a specific provision of law;
- State that the records do not exist or cannot be found; or
- Invoke an additional seven days to respond.
FOIA permits that “a public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed actual costs incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying or searching for requested records.” This typically occurs when the scope of the records is so broad that a large quantity of documents would result in fulfilling the request.
Since requirements for requesting records under FOIA are minimal, neither the state, nor Prince William County have adopted a form or established format for making a FOIA request. You don’t even have to state that you are making a FOIA request. All you have to do is request a record. To make certain you get the record you are seeking, the following guidelines are suggested:
- Make the request in writing. This provides assurance that the public body understands what it is you are requesting, and it documents when the request was made.
- Send the request to the custodian of the records. The five day response window begins upon receipt of the request by the custodian of the records. So, it is best to send the request to the custodian directly. If you do not know who possesses the record, you may contact the County Attorney’s Office, who may be able to help forward the request, but this will delay the time in which you can receive response because they will have to determine who might be the custodian of such a record.
- Ask for a specific record. Although the County strives to assist you as much as possible, FOIA does not require the County to create records that do not already exist.
More information on FOIA is available in the Code of Virginia, Freedom of Information Act.