Similar to the Freedom of Information Act, the California Public Records Act (CPRA) is a law that guarantees the public access to government records. “Public Records” is broadly defined to include any documents that related to the “public’s business.” However, there are some exceptions. The law does not include “purely personal information,” even that which a government agency has in its custody. It also exempts records pertaining to law enforcement investigations, litigation, proprietary business data, and personal privacy.

Anyone can use the California Public Records Act to request public documents. It is not required that there be a stated purpose for requesting the documents. The act gives the public prompt access to records in an effort to keep the government accountable to the people.

What Type of Information Is Subject to the Act?

The California Public Records Act defines public records to include virtually any document prepared, owned, used, or held in the custody of a state or local agency that relates to the “public’s business.” Almost any records involved in the business of government are subject to the act. Exemptions are narrow and the burden is on the government to prove that the record should not be made public. There must be some public interest in withholding the record that outweighs the public’s interest in its disclosure.

The broad definition of public records means nearly any government office will be subject to the California Public Records Act, including:

  • State offices, officers, departments, divisions, bureaus, boards, and commissions.
  • Local agencies, such as county offices, cities, school districts, municipal corporations, districts, local public agencies, and nonprofits that are legislative bodies of a local agency.

Records from the California state legislature and its committees, as well as state courts, cannot be accessed using the CPRA.

California recently expanded the scope of the CPRA to apply to records relating to the following:

  • Any incident where a law enforcement officer discharged their firearm at a person.
  • Any incident involving the use of force by a law enforcement officer against a person that resulted in death or great bodily injury.
  • Any incident where it was found that a law enforcement officer sexually assaulted a member of the public.
  • Any incident where it was found that a law enforcement officer acted dishonestly in the reporting, investigation, or prosecution of a crime.
  • Any incident where it was found that a law enforcement officer acted dishonestly as it relates to reporting or investigating misconduct by another law enforcement officer. This might include perjury, false statements, false reports, destroying, falsifying, or concealing evidence.

Only sustained findings are subject to public disclosure, therefore many records remain hidden from the public. This includes situations where an officer resigns from the police force. Their records are not subject to the CPRA.

What Are the Exemptions to the CPRA?

Though the definition of public record is quite broad there are a number of California Public Records Act exemptions, such as:

  • Drafts, notes, memoranda that are not retained by an agency in the ordinary course of doing business, if withholding the records is of greater interest to the public than disclosing them.
  • Records pertaining to pending litigation than an agency is a party to, until the litigation is settled.
  • Personnel, medical, or other files that if disclosed, would be an invasion of personal privacy.
  • Applications, reports, interagency or intra-agency communications, or other information received in confidence in the possession of any agency that regulates or supervises financial institutions or supervises the issuance of securities, such as banks, savings and loan companies, credit unions, and insurance companies.
  • Certain information obtained in confidence regarding utility system development or market or crop reports.
  • Complaints or records of investigations conducted by the Attorney General, Department of Justice, Office of
  • Emergency Services, and any state or local police agency.
  • Victims of crime may request that their name be withheld.
  • Human trafficking victims may request that their name and image (as well as those of their immediate family) be kept private until any investigation or prosecution is complete.
  • Records pertaining to active law enforcement investigations.
  • Records outlining law enforcement security procedures.
  • Questions and scoring information for licensing examinations.
  • Taxpayer information.
  • Library circulation information identifying the borrower.
  • Personal financial data.

Generally speaking, any information that would be considered privileged or confidential, or the disclosure of which would amount to an invasion of personal privacy, are not subject to the California Public Records Act.

Where the public interest will not be served by disclosure, certain records can be kept private. For example, in the case of records pertaining to a crime, personal details identifying the victim of a crime can be withheld, while basic information regarding the crime is made available to the public.

Where Can I Find the Public Records in California?

Agencies subject to the California Public Records Act must make their records available during regular office hours. Agencies are permitted to enact their own guidelines and procedures, but cannot limit the hours when records are available for viewing.

You can request copies of public records, and while it is advised that the request be made in writing so that there is a record of it, putting the request in writing is not required. Agencies have ten days to respond to requests for records. The agency is permitted to charge a fee for making the copy, but the cost is limited to the direct costs associated with providing the copy.

Public agencies in California are required to assist the public in identifying records that pertain to the request. That might include helping with the technology used to retrieve information or directing the public to the actual physical location where the records are kept and are available for examination.

In some cases the records contain information that is available to the public, as well as personal or private information that is exempt. In those cases, you are entitled to the portion of the record that is not exempt from the CPRA, assuming it is reasonable to separate the information. If it is not reasonable to separate a portion of the record containing private information from the portion subject to disclosure, the record will be withheld to protect the privacy interest.

Should I Be Concerned about My Private Information?

The California Public Records Act contains many exceptions that are intended to protect personal and private information. The interest in personal privacy generally outweighs the benefit of information being made available to the public. In fact, the CPRA has a “catchall” exemption that allows any record to be withheld if the public interest in withholding would outweigh the public interest in disclosure. Disclosing the personal or private information of regular citizens generally does not serve the public interest.

If you think that your private information might be part of a public record disclosure, you should contact an attorney to learn how you can keep your information from being made available to the public.

Seeking Legal Help

If you need to access public records via the California Public Records Act, a government lawyer can help you navigate the process. Public records may be helpful for litigation or other legal proceedings. Journalists, both professional and amateur benefit from the availability of public records.

Knowing exactly where to find the information you are entitled to and getting it from the government agency can be a difficult process. An experienced attorney can help you understand the CPRA and any relevant exemptions related to the information you seek.