Common questions about Arizona Public Records Law

The Arizona Public Records Law, Title 39 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, is the foundation on which Arizonans build their knowledge of representative government. Individuals can find out in detail, through public records, what public business is being transacted by state and local government agencies, elected officials and public employees. A wealth of information on corporations, businesses and even individuals also is available: property and property tax records, incorporation documents, recorded financial transactions, liens, lawsuits and police reports, for example.

The right to see public records flows from a basic statement in Arizona's law: "Public records and other matters in the custody of any officer shall be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours." What does that mean? In a very real sense, you should be allowed to walk into a public agency, ask to see a public record and see it within a reasonable time period. The Arizona Public Records Law trumps any county and municipal rules regarding public records. If there is a conflict, the state law applies. And any restrictions on access to public records that public agencies try to impose must be in accordance with state law. If an agency denies your request for records, it must provide you with the legal basis for its refusal in writing.

As a citizen, these are your public records. Know about them. Find them. Use them to educate yourself and your neighbors. It is not only your democratic right; it is your responsibility.

Question: Are there differences between state and local records and federal records?

Answer: Yes. The Arizona Public Records Law and certain case law established by state courts govern the records of state and local governments in Arizona. Records maintained by federal agencies and federal public officials fall under the federal Freedom of Information Act. This website is intended to help users find Arizona state and local records only, and does not provide guidance on obtaining federal records.

Q: Who decides what is or is not a public record in Arizona?

A: Title 39 of the Arizona Revised Statutes defines public records at the state and local levels. It requires public agencies to maintain records that are “reasonably necessary or appropriate to maintain an accurate knowledge of their official activities and of any of their activities which are supported by monies from this state or any political subdivision of the state.” That means if a record is necessary to understand the publicly funded activities of government entities, then it’s a public record. Another basic tenet of the law: "Public records and other matters in the custody of any officer shall be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours." Your position at the outset of every conversation about public records should be: By default, public records are open to the public unless case law or another statute provides otherwise. When in doubt, Arizona courts say to err on the side of disclosure.

Q: What constitutes reasonable time for an agency to produce a record?

A: The Arizona Public Records Law stipulates that an agency act “promptly” on a request. What does that mean? The Arizona Agency Handbook, an advisory document prepared by the Attorney General’s Office for state agencies, has this to say: “If the custodian of public records does not promptly respond to record requests and promptly furnish records that are subject to disclosure, access will be deemed denied,” and the requester at that point has legal recourse to challenge the agency withholding the records. The handbook also cites case law indicating that “ ‘prompt’ … mean(s) ‘quick to act or to do what is required,’ or ‘done, spoken, etc. at once or without delay.’ ” In another case, “the Arizona Court of Appeals found that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office had wrongfully denied records requests because it had delayed in providing the requested documents and failed to offer a legally sufficient reason for the delay.”

In a practical sense, the length of time it takes to comply with your request depends on what you are asking for. Information on certain basics, such as a city budget or a traffic accident report, should be available quickly – if not the same day, then certainly within a few days. But a more complex request that involves multiple records or requires a detailed search could take more time. The key is to communicate with the custodian of the records often and to negotiate a mutually beneficial schedule. If various records are requested and some will take longer than others to produce, ask the custodian to make available those that can be quickly produced so you can begin to view them as the search continues for the rest.

Q: Do I have to pay for a public record?

A: It depends. You do not need to pay if you simply want to look at a document and read it without making a copy. But if you want a copy made, then, yes, you will pay something. You may examine documents – and take notes – for as long as you like, even over a period of days if necessary, without charge. A public agency also cannot charge you for the time it takes to find the document or to redact it for your inspection. The hitch is that while the law says public records must be open to inspection at all times during office hours, courts and the Arizona attorney general have said that agencies have some latitude in how soon they must produce the records. They don't need to immediately comply if production would "disrupt public business" – for example, a large request that would require a small agency to drop everything to comply immediately. Agencies also are allowed time to redact information covered by privacy or confidentiality statutes. The law permits the custodian of the record to charge a reasonable fee for copying, but that charge only applies if you want the copy, not if the agency decides to make a copy for its own purposes – for example, to make it easier for you to read, or to redact certain information. If the agency does charge for copying costs, the charge must be "reasonable" and is usually set on a per-page basis by agency policy. It can range from 10 cents to $1 per page. One way to keep charges reasonable is to view the documents in person, take notes and use Post-It notes to flag only those pages you want copied to take with you.

Q: Is what I seek for a commercial purpose?

A: A state agency may ask if the record is sought for a commercial purpose. A citizen seeking records who does not intend to sell the information or use it for some business or commercial purpose can rightfully respond that it is for a non-commercial purpose. If your request is for a commercial purpose, however, it could trigger other charges. The law defines a commercial purpose as “the use of a public record for the purpose of sale or resale or for the purpose of producing a document containing all or part of the copy, printout or photograph for sale or the obtaining of names and addresses from public records for the purpose of solicitation or the sale of names and addresses to another for the purpose of solicitation or for any purpose in which the purchaser can reasonably anticipate the receipt of monetary gain from the direct or indirect use of the public record. Commercial purpose does not mean the use of a public record as evidence or as research for evidence in an action in any judicial or quasi-judicial body.”

Q: What doesn't have to be released?

A: There is no centralized list of what doesn’t need to be released, with exceptions to the public records law scattered throughout the Arizona Revised Statutes. For example, ARS 12-2312 says records of confidential informants are not public records. While the legal presumption is that public records are open, common law and court decisions also can be a good guide to exceptions. Arizona case law essentially says that any record that isn't specifically exempted in statute should be released unless an "important and harmful effect" on the agency or an official therein would ensue. Embarrassment does not qualify as a harmful effect. Even if the document was expected to remain confidential, that alone does not immunize it from disclosure – the agency must prove a harmful effect would result from disclosure. Opinions by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office have consistently supported the notion that agencies should err on the side of disclosure. The Arizona Supreme Court, meanwhile, has held that a record may only be withheld if a countervailing privacy or confidentiality interest or the "best interests of the state" outweighs the public's right to know – and the burden is on the party trying to withhold documents to prove the harm that would follow release. So, that leaves us, theoretically, with records specifically exempted by law from disclosure. A rough list of exemptions includes grand-jury records, birth and death records (because of identity-theft issues), executive-session documents and minutes, certain records of professional groups deemed by law to be confidential, medical records, certain law-enforcement records, sealed indictments, and certain educational records governed by federal law. For a detailed list of specific records protected by Arizona law and defined by the Arizona attorney general, click here.

Q: Do draft documents need to be released?

A: The law doesn't address drafts specifically but talks about "permanent public records" being maintained and produced. Does "permanent" mean draft? Maybe, maybe not. The law also doesn't specifically define "public record" but says officers "shall maintain all records ... reasonably necessary or appropriate to maintain an accurate knowledge of their official activities and of any of their activities which are supported by monies from the state or any political subdivision of the state." This could include drafts. Bottom line: Some agencies produce them, some don't. The Attorney General’s Office’s Arizona Agency Handbook says certain draft or unfinished police reports should be produced, but draft audit files and draft work papers are exempt from release. One way to guide yourself is to consider whether the draft has been disseminated. If it is truly a draft – i.e., the document is still being put together and the authors have not sent it to anyone for review yet – then you'll probably lose your demand for it, though it's worth asking for because some agencies will readily part with drafts. But you're on more solid ground once the draft has been disseminated to policymakers (agency directors, lawmakers, city council, etc.) or anyone outside the agency because, even though it might not have been formally published, it has become a public instrument and, as per the language above, something useful to their official activities. Remember, it's all about what documents are used by the government to do its job. If a document is a vital part of that, you have a good argument for getting your hands on it, because the public has a right to know what business is being conducted by its elected representatives.

Q: Can I get records involving an ongoing investigation?

A: Sometimes. Police agencies generally try to exempt from disclosure any records from an ongoing investigation, but the courts have held that they are not necessarily exempt. The key is whether production of the record would be detrimental to the "best interests of the state" or harm privacy or confidentiality interests sufficiently to outweigh the public interest. What does that mean in plain English? Basically, if release of the information could ruin a criminal case, expose informants in some way that puts them at risk, etc., then it probably is protected from disclosure. If that can't be shown, then the record theoretically should be produced. That means you can argue for it and engage officials in a discussion by asking for an explanation, in writing, of how the interests of the agency, the case or certain individuals will be harmed. As a practical matter, if an agency doesn't want to let the information go, you'll have to fight for it, and that isn't always practical or financially feasible. Use common sense. If you believe you have a clear right to it and it won't hurt the case, then fight for it. If it's an administrative investigation of a public employee, you'll run into similar issues, although there may be added interests involving the rights of employees to due process and privacy. Often, agencies wait until the merit-system appeals process runs its course before releasing any documents.

Q: Can I get personnel records?

A: It depends. If privacy interests outweigh the public’s right of inspection, certain portions of public personnel files may be withheld or redacted – for example, health information, Social Security numbers and phone numbers. To withhold information in a file, the agency must show specific and serious harm to the individual or agency resulting from release. Salary, resume and all the other basics are always to be released. Though state government, by rule, has made all but the basic information from employee personnel files secret, performance reviews of public employees generally are considered a public record. If you are having difficulty finding top managers’ performance reviews, it is possible the governing body has gone into executive session to rate top managers for their performance evaluations. By law, members of governing bodies are allowed to discuss personnel issues behind closed doors, and the minutes are not a matter of public record. Comments made in executive session would therefore not often be found in a personnel file.

Q: Can I get records from an executive session?

A: If the record was created in executive session to memorialize what was discussed there or to memorialize options debated there, then it will not be produced. But if it is a record that existed before the executive session pertaining to an ongoing matter before the public body, then it should be produced, and members of the public body may publicly discuss the issue – broadly or specifically – as long as they do not repeat the precise content of the discussion that went on behind closed doors. They can talk about the issue, they can give their thoughts on the issue, they can discuss their position on the matter, they can even talk about public records (memos, letters, briefing papers, etc.) on the matter, but they simply cannot discuss what transpired in executive session.

Q: What do I do if I disagree with a public agency's position on a record I am seeking?

A: Argue your case. Don't be afraid to engage the agency, its public-information officer or even its director or lawyer in a written debate over the records. There is a reason they are called "public records." Be sure to get it all in writing, however, so that you have a clear, incontrovertible record of the agency's position and statements should you choose to bring a lawyer into it. Citizens are the first line of opposition to poor public records maintenance, and you should know the law and argue it to your advantage. If you think the initial response to your request is incomplete or incorrect, write a letter explaining why, and ask for documentation. If the agency withholds or redacts records, ask it to provide you with the citations for the statutory provisions or court opinions that support its actions. As the law permits, ask for an inventory of any records not being produced and the legal reason. Cite your own readings of the statutes or case law that you think support your request, and ask the agency to respond to those citations and explain why they do not apply. Asking the agency to put its arguments in writing preserves the record in case you decide to engage a lawyer. In cases where you're not sure, consult the Arizona Ombudsman-Citizens' Aide (3737 N. Seventh St., Suite 209, Phoenix, 85014; 602-277-7292 or 800-872-2879 if outside metro Phoenix; fax 602-277-7312; e-mail ombuds@azoca.gov) about state matters.

Q: Are records from court cases public records?

A: Yes, unless they have been sealed by a judge for a specific legal reason. Most court-case records are open to public inspection at the clerk of the court’s office during regular business hours. Most courts, however, do not permit email or telephone requests for case records. Most county superior courts in Arizona have searchable databases of case information on their websites. Information made available in this way is limited, however, to docketing information about the types of documents that have been filed in each case and when. To view the actual documents, citizens must visit the appropriate court clerk’s office and request specific documents or case files. Most offices allow those documents to be copied for a fee. Justices courts often do not have records or dockets searchable via the Internet, and therefore, a visit to the court is necessary to find and retrieve specific case documents.


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