What is a Public Records Act Request?
Posted by Lauren Freidenberg
The Washington State Public Records Act (PRA) is a powerful tool to enforce the public’s right to information. The PRA allows individuals to request a wide range of public records, regardless of immigration status.
Originally passed as a ballot initiative in 1972, the PRA has been revised several times over the years by the state legislature. The broad construction of the PRA is deliberate and gives the public access to information related to our local and state government: "The legislature finds that the rights of citizens to observe the actions of their public officials and to have timely access to public records are the underpinnings of democracy and are essential for meaningful citizen participation in the democratic process.” See RCW 42.56.150, notes.
MHB lawyers have extensive skills and experience procuring records through the PRA and the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). We fight for government transparency and for access to public records that have been improperly withheld from disclosure. MHB lawyers have brought many successful lawsuits against local, state, and federal government agencies that resulted in access to records and monetary penalties for failure to produce responsive documents.
Broad Scope of Disclosable Records under the PRA
The PRA declares that “[t]he people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” See RCW 42.56.030. The PRA requires every state agency to disclose any public record upon request unless the record falls within a specific exemption. See RCW 42.56.070(1). Any agency that withholds a public record bears the burden of demonstrating that a specific exemption applies.
Courts are to construe the PRA liberally and its exemptions narrowly.
What Records Are Public?
In Washington State, a public record is defined as “…any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” See RCW 42.56.010(3). The term “writing” has an extensive meaning including handwritten or typewritten documents, audio recordings, photographs, or any other communication or representation in which data may be obtained or translated. See RCW 42.56.010(4).
What is a Public Records Act Request and How Can Someone Request Records Under the PRA?
There are two main ways to request public records from state or federal governmental agencies. PRA requests govern records from cities, counties, districts, and other state governmental entities. FOIA requests govern records from federal governmental agencies.
The basic steps to making a public records request are the following:
1. Determine which government agency has the information that you want.
2. Determine whether the agency with the information is a federal, state, or local government agency.
3. Now that you know whether to make a PRA or FOIA request, find out if the information is already publicly available. If the information is not publicly available, you will need to follow the process laid out by each law. Most government agencies have a website or online portal to submit the FOIA or PRA request.
For example, you can submit a PRA request to the City of Seattle online here.
What Happens if the Records Are Not Properly Produced?
The PRA requires the responding governmental agency to search for and produce non-exempt records to anyone who requests them. When government agencies wrongfully deny access to public records, they may face statutory monetary penalties. See RCW 42.56.150, notes ("All too often, however, violations of the requirements of the public records act and the open public meetings act by public officials and agencies result in citizens being denied this important information and materials to which they are legally entitled”).
Any person who prevails against an agency in a PRA action shall be awarded all costs, including reasonable attorney fees, incurred in connection with such legal action. RCW 42.56.550(4). In addition, it shall be within the discretion of the court to award such person an amount not to exceed one hundred dollars for each day that he, she, or they were denied the right to inspect or copy said public record. See Id.
Civil rights attorneys devote their careers to defending and bringing justice to people who were wronged by those in positions of power. Access to public records is often essential to investigate many of our civil rights cases. MacDonald Hoague & Bayless has years of experience bringing claims for failure to comply with the PRA and FOIA. If you believe that you are entitled to records under the PRA or FOIA, contact our civil rights attorneys today: 206-662-1604, firstname.lastname@example.org.
MacDonald Hoague & Bayless Has Been a Leader in Civil Rights Litigation for More Than 70 Years
MacDonald Hoague & Bayless was founded in 1952 and has established itself as a national leader in civil rights litigation over the decades. In addition to representing individuals for prominent civil rights causes over the decades such as conscientious objectors in the 1960s, our firm has a long history of providing quality representation to underserved client populations, including refugees, victims of police misconduct, inmates on death row, and prisoners challenging unconstitutional prison conditions.
Our Seattle civil rights lawyers are dedicated to civil rights in both our personal and professional lives. Among our attorneys are past presidents of the ACLU of Washington and board members of the ACLU of Washington, the national ACLU, and Legal Voice. We are proud to have served as cooperating attorneys for the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Civil rights attorney, Lauren I. Freidenberg, is a member of the Asian Bar Association of Washington, the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association, and the King County Bar Association. She was awarded the National Police Accountability Project’s R. Samuel Paz - Sonia M. Mercado Civil Rights award in 2022. Lauren served on the executive board for the American Constitution Society - San Diego Lawyer Chapter, and she has been active in the National Lawyers Guild local chapters since 2016.
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**This is a blog post intended for general educational purposes, not legal advice**