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Obtaining public records and its guidelines

The world of public records is a big one, especially if you’re not sure where to look.

Public government data or records are those which any citizen can simply walk into a government building such as a police department or courthouse and request to see. Government agencies are required to keep a number of records, and, according to state law, most of those are considered public.

According to Minnesota State Statute 13.03 (Subd. 1), “All government data collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated by a government entity shall be public unless classified by statute, or temporary classification pursuant to section 13.06, or federal law, as nonpublic or protected nonpublic, or with respect to data on individuals, as private or confidential.”

Public records can consist of criminal complaints, arrest records, court cases and many more documents.

And, according to the law, governments are required to provide public documents to anyone who requests them.

However, the manner in which those documents are provided – and the cost – may differ between individual agencies and individual public data requests.

Importance of access to public records

The ability to have access to various types of public records not only allows citizens a way to understand what is happening in their area, but can act as a credible tool for researching various topics and people.

According to staff members at the City of Hastings, police reports are some of the most common public data requests that are handled and receive anywhere from 350 to 400 requests a year.

The Hastings Star Gazette conducted an informal online survey of its readers regarding public data. Of the 20 people who participated, 15 said that they or someone they know has had to obtain public government records.

How to access and obtain public records

Accessing public records is quite simple. In government buildings such as police departments or courthouses, there are clerks who can help with pulling up specific cases or requests.

Also, some buildings have a computer station in which citizens are allowed to search for different records themselves.

While some records can be accessed online, each branch of government varies as to how the data can be viewed, said Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association and expert in the operation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

The judicial branch sets its own rules, so their records are more accessible online versus other branches.

“Executive branch records which consist of state agencies, regional bodies like the Metropolitan Council and local agencies – counties, cities, school boards, townships, all of them, their records are for the most part not going to be available online,” Anfinson said.

Despite certain records not being available online, all records that are public will be available regardless if an in-person visit is made.

Cost of public records

There are two things that can easily be overlooked by a person requesting to obtain public records: the difference between viewing the requested material and requesting a copy and the cost associated with requesting a copy.

“If you request simply to review or inspect the records at the government office, you can’t be charged anything to do so,” Anfinson said. “And if you want to make your own copy or take photos with your phone or take notes, no charge can be imposed on you for that; however, if you request copies, then there is a very specific formula in that same statute that describes what sorts of charges you can be assessed.”

According to the online survey conducted by the Star Gazette, when asked, “are you aware that you can view public records for free?” 60 percent of respondents said yes. When asked “are you aware that you may take a picture of public records or write down information for free?” 65 percent said no.

Anyone can walk into an office and ask to review records. Costs only arise when the citizen asks for copies to be made.

According to Anfinson, there are two formulas that assess what an entity can charge a citizen for public data.

The first formula, which is a “simpler one,” Anfinson said, was put into law a few years ago. The law states that if a person requests 100 or fewer copies (standard copies, black and white on letter or legal sized paper), then the charge may not exceed 25 cents per page.

The second formula reflects actual costs and has been in place for much longer than the price-per-page formula. Actual cost refers to the costs required to produce the copies, including pay for the employee making and compiling the copies and products used in the process. If a person’s request does not fit the guidelines of the price-per-page formula, then the government agency is allowed to lawfully charge the person the actual cost of the copies.

“...the responsible authority may charge a reasonable fee for the information in addition to the costs of making and certifying the copies. Any fee charged must be clearly demonstrated by the government entity to relate to the actual development costs of the information. The responsible authority, upon the request of any person, shall provide sufficient documentation to explain and justify the fee being charged,” According to Minnesota State Statute 13.03 (Subd. 3).

Typically anyone requesting copies of more than 100 pages, records on a CD or any other type of electronic data must pay the actual cost.

For example, if a person were to go in requesting 150 copies of a certain case, then the person must pay the amount it would take to pay a government employee to make those copies, plus the amount of money it takes for the physical copies (i.e. paper and ink). But, the rate of the government employee must be reasonable.

For example, if you require materials from the district attorney’s office that exceeds the 100 copy limit. The actual cost you pay reflects the rate of a standard employee making copies, not the rate of the district attorney.

The same applies for electronic forms. If someone were to request court case records to be put on a CD, the person would have to pay the amount it takes to pay an employee to physically locate, download and copy all of the data onto a CD.

Despite the costs it may take to take home copies of the data, Anfinson said that in most cases, copies are not necessary.

“Now there’s often assumption by citizens and even reporters that when you request government records, you’re requesting copies automatically, but that’s not true and in many cases all the person has to do is review the records,” he said.

Taking a photo or notes is free of charge.

Non-public records

While most public data is open to the public, there are some instances in which that may not be the case.

An issue that can arise is if the requested material is sealed or not public, which can only be determined by statute or a judge. If the data is sealed, no one unrelated to the case or complaint is allowed to view the documents.

For example, various open criminal cases, government employee’s personal data and other such documents may be sealed through court order.

Sometimes, certain documents can start out being public, but over time be sealed, such as in expungement.

There is no way in which a citizen can view sealed public data unless they have the correct government clearance.