Obtaining government records for whatever purpose should NOT be a nightmare. I’ve been requesting data from government agencies across the Metro Atlanta Area for several years. Here are ten tips for success based on my own personal experiences that might help you have an easier time obtaining data that also might apply to discovery in court cases:
- You do not have to cram the fact that there are FOIA and ORA (Open Records Act) laws in existence down some poor records custodian’s throat. Simply get straight to the point without the condescending attitude and legalese blabber and ask for what you want. If the records custodian stonewalls, then get medieval with the paperwork. I’ve discovered that informally requesting data via e-mail is an easy and quick process. Paper in hard copy and/or fax is only needed if a signature is required. Hard copy can be intimidating and can increase both the waiting time and costs involved.
- Go digital unless it’s some municipality or county that’s a throwback to the stone ages tech-wise. I’ve gotten police reports within a few days at zero cost simply by checking off the optional “receive this document by e-mail” box and including my e-mail address on the form. I’ve used online faxing services and have sent faxes in mere moments… and sha-bang, my data was received lightening-quick because I accepted the data via e-mail or return fax. One department responded with requested data in under 30 minutes. Adobe Acrobat has the ability to Bates stamp documents, too, and I’ve used email in lieu of sending reams and reams of paper. It’s called e-discovery for a reason.
- Get smart about your requests. Try and find out who, exactly, you need the data from before actually putting your request to that person. Get your request ready to submit but before you actually send it in, try and arrange a meeting with the records custodian. Discuss the data and ask if it’s possible to get it digitally, as digital data requests are often a fraction of the cost of paper-based request. The second purpose of the chat with the data custodian is to “prep” them for the request because they will then be expecting your request and might respond a LOT faster, reducing the time required for the data to be extracted and sent. This can possibly drop the cost from dollars to nothing. There are still requests that WILL cost you regardless, such as a copy of a 911 call recording and its associated data, but at least you will understand how the data is going to come your way when you ask the data custodian about the request.
- Be professional about it! Keep any emotion or agendas to yourself. Kitty’s claws should NOT be out when data requests are being performed. Nobody is going to play nice if the person requesting data comes across as a vindictive get with a large ax to grind. In fact, be strictly academic about it, literally. You’re simply out to get the data, right? Search the internet to find out if anyone else has published a report or has started a project that could use your data or maybe someone else in the community already has your target data in their possession and is willing to share it if you ask them nicely.
- Consider the target cost and/or time frame of your requests. If you are seeking copies of ~300 warrants, perhaps it would cost less (mine were free) if you talked to the data custodian and broke the work out in small chunks of 20 per e-mail, twice per week. A data custodian will resent a large, burdensome project but might welcome small ones and not charge you for the smaller workloads. Database data is easily obtained if you know how the database is laid out. A records search can take anywhere from less than a minute to several hours depending on what data you request. Try and find out from the custodian what records are available from what source and how the data is stored. Then tailor your requests to be as easily produced as you can. If it means that you put in four requests from four database tables and get free data rather than one giant request and you’re having to pay, say $50, which would you choose? Make it EASY.
- Tailor your requests to make the request easy to fulfill. Police and security agencies will treat their records departments like Fort Knox. Is there another place where you can get the lower-hanging “fruit” before trying to get more sensitive data? You can use one set of easily-obtained data to extract other data that would be otherwise impossible to get. If you can prove that you know that an agency has data on hand that you want, then they will not be able to stonewall you as much.
- Use your due process rights if you can. Do you have an open criminal or civil case that you are dealing with? Flip that situation on its head and use it to your advantage. You have a *right* to exculpatory data and/or information via your due process rights. This includes information that may be used to block the introduction of evidence at trial, so police procedures that might be in violation of federally-protected rights against unlawful search and seizure are one example of a category of requests that you could possibly demand that the police produce at no charge pursuant to due process rights. A smart activist will coordinate efforts with a whole group to go records-hunting. The efforts of a single dedicated person can result in hundreds or thousands of cases being dismissed for violations of peoples’ rights. Your civil and constitutional rights are critical tools to be used to fight State oppression and/or wrongful arrest and charges.
- Know the tech involved – spend a few hours researching the technology you are dealing with in your matter. For example, while a police department can hide from a subpoena for data, the owners of a cell phone tower might not have that ability. Each layer of technology in use points to one or more possible sources of valuable data. Another example is police car video / audio. If a police officer suddenly shuts off the blue lights during a traffic stop, it might be because the onboard audio only records when a Code is in progress, so that video / audio might possibly not exist. If the police claim that they have no way of telling where their officers are located, a “tour” of the 911 command center might reveal that there are little icons on a computerized map showing where all the officers are at any given time. But people would not know that such technology exists unless they actually spend some time researching the tech involved.
- Try to use self-help sources as much as possible. Courthouses typically have FREE public use terminals, where you can find a lot of information you need about a case, including Federal Court. It’s typically free to examine a court case file in-person for information. If you have a notepad or a digital camera, the data can be copied easily.
- Consider the timing of your data request. If the custodian says it might take a few extra days, my personal tack is go with the flow and thank the custodian for the effort and assistance while confirming the two extra days. When dealing with a government agency, I try to find out what the “best” times are to send a request in and possibly when the optimal times for a discussion with the records custodian are. Working with your data custodians to optimize the request for the benefit of all can go a long way if that custodian is someone you’re going to deal with repeatedly. Some departments are on crushing deadlines a few days each year, so avoiding these times can prevent unnecessary frustration and/or delays.
I hope these tips help. Sharing is caring, so please share the link to this post freely, and consider sending a donation to Amy Barnes at PO Box 551, Smyrna GA 30081 if you like my work and want to thank me with donations. Political activism, sadly, is not a paying job.