California Public Records Act (PRA)

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Orange County Data PRA Lawsuit
Sierra Club v. Orange County
California Supreme Court Case #S194708

An Important Case That's Being Watched Nationwide

On April 21, 2009 the Sierra Club (SC) filed suit in Orange County Superior Court against the County of Orange (OC) to obtain GIS parcel mapping data under the California Public Records Act (PRA). The Sierra Club had requested this data several times in writing, and OC denied the request each time. The trial court denied the Sierra Club's request for a court order compelling Orange County to disclose the GIS parcel data under the PRA. The Sierra Club filed an appeal on August 27, 2010. The Court of Appeal heard oral arguments on March 18, 2011 and filed its opinion, ruling against the Sierra Club on May 31, 2011. On September 14, 2011 the California Supreme Court granted review. This is significant, because the Supreme Court reviews only about three percent of the cases offered to them for review. Litigation documents, including the complete record from the trial court, are available online.
     The California Public Records Act, Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 6250-6276.48, requires state and local agencies to provide public records to any member of the public upon demand, for a fee that can be no more than the direct cost of making the physical copy. (Gov’t Code § 6253.) Cities and counties are local agencies. The PRA provides that a requester may obtain public records in electronic form when the agency keeps the records in electronic form, or distributes the records in electronic form. (Gov’t Code § 6253.9.) In addition, the PRA states that “Public records stored in a computer shall be disclosed as required by this chapter.” (Gov’t Code § 6254.9(d).) Public records are defined to include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” (Gov’t Code § 6252(e).) These provisions clearly indicate that the PRA applies to computer data.

The Santa Clara Case

The only published California case addressing the issue of whether the PRA applies to computer data is County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court, 170 Cal. App. 4th 1301 (2009). In that case, which is factually identical to the Sierra Club’s, the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC) sued Santa Clara County to obtain its GIS parcel data under the PRA. Geographic Information System (GIS) parcel data is computer mapping data containing the location and boundary layout of each legal parcel of land in the county. In olden times this information was kept in the form of paper survey maps, referenced to survey monuments fixed in the ground. Now it is referenced to latitude and longitude, and kept in digital form in computers. These days computers are used to make parcel maps – and most other maps.
     CFAC sued to obtain the Santa Clara GIS parcel data and won its case in the trial court. Santa Clara County appealed, and CFAC won again in the Court of Appeal. The Sierra Club thought the published decision in this case would be binding precedent on the issue of whether GIS parcel data is subject to disclosure under the PRA. But there is one argument on that issue not addressed in depth in the Court of Appeal opinion, because Santa Clara County dropped the argument in the appeal after the trial court shot it down. That argument is that the GIS parcel data is included within the software exception in Gov’t Code § 6254.9. That section reads, in part:

6254.9.  (a) Computer software developed by a state or local agency
is not itself a public record under this chapter. . . .
(b) As used in this section, "computer software" includes computer
mapping systems, computer programs, and computer graphics systems.
. . .
(d) Nothing in this section is intended to affect the public
record status of information merely because it is stored in a
computer. Public records stored in a computer shall be disclosed as
required by this chapter.

Orange County's Arguments

Responding to the Sierra Club’s suit, OC argued that the GIS parcel data requested by the Sierra Club was part of a computer mapping system, which makes it software under the definition in § 6254.9 quoted above. Therefore, under this section, it is not a public record, and is not subject to disclosure under the PRA. Orange County Superior Court Judge James J. Di Cesare agreed with this argument, and ruled against the Sierra Club.
     This is a break from all previous authority. In 2005, the California Attorney General issued an opinion on whether GIS parcel data was subject to disclosure under the PRA. The opinion stated that it was subject to disclosure, and in analyzing the question the AG addressed the § 6254.9 software exception and found that it didn’t apply. The Santa Clara Court of Appeal decision also can he read as holding that the Santa Clara GIS parcel data is a public record, and the § 6254.9 software exception doesn’t apply.

The Possible Consequences, if the Court of Appeals Ruling is Sustained on Appeal

The OC ruling opens up the possibility that the software exception, which up to now has applied only to actual software, could be expanded by courts to include all computer data. If GIS parcel data is computer software under the § 6254.9 definition because it’s part of a “computer mapping system,” this reasoning would apply to all GIS data, which, as a result, would not be public records.
     This "GIS taint" could work to exclude databases whose contents were not predominantly GIS data. The OC Landbase, the data requested by the Sierra Club in the OC suit, is an Oracle database containing a row of data for each parcel. Most of the database fields for each parcel contain plain-text, non-GIS attributes such as Assessor Parcel Number, street address, and so on. If the database did not contain a column for parcel geometry, the database would contain no GIS data, and there would be no argument that it is part of a "computer mapping system." But more and more government databases are starting to contain at least a geocoded latitude and longitude, as governments make wider use of GIS and try to make their data mapping-friendly. It is possible that, if the OC decision were affirmed on appeal, that it could work to shield most government data from PRA disclosure, if the databases contained just a minimal GIS taint.
     And the ruling could be expanded even further. Gov't Code § 6254.9 includes "computer graphic systems" and "computer programs" in the definition of "computer software," parallel to "computer mapping systems." If GIS data is included within "computer mapping systems" because it is manipulated and read by computer mapping systems software, other types of data could be included within "computer graphics systems" (does this mean Windows software?) or "computer programs" because the data is manipulated and read by those types of software.
     More and more public records are being kept in the form of computer data and databases. GIS data is only one type of data that the public might request from state and local agencies under the PRA. Accounting and financial data, scientific, engineering and environmental data all fall within the PRA’s definition of public records but could be withheld from the public if courts found that these types of data were “computer software” under the definition in the PRA.

Please Help with the Appeal

The California Public Records Access Center will continue working with the Sierra Club, who is planning to appeal the Orange County trial court’s decision. Our lawyers are working pro-bono, but we still need funds to pay for costs on appeal. Please donate to the Sierra Club appeal effort by sending a check made out to “Advocates for the Environment” (our parent organization, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, so your contribution is tax-deductible) to California Public Records Access Center, P.O. Box 4242, Sunland, CA 91041-4242. Or donate online at using the button at the left of this page.