California Public Records Act (PRA)

Federal Freedom of Information Act


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Public Records Act Data Litigation Project

We are just getting started on a project to compel California public and local agencies to disclose computer data files under the Public Records Act. This is important litigation, because it will determine the rights of California citizens to access computer data kept by state and local governments. The public has already paid, through taxation, for this data. Why should we have to pay again when we want a copy?
      California's constitution was amended by Prop 59 in 2004 to provide a new civil right to California Citizens, the right to know what the government is doing, why it is doing it and how. In addition, Prop 59 added language to Article I, section 3 of the California Constitution requiring courts to broadly interpret statutes giving the public access to government information, and to narrowly interpret exemptions.
     The Public Records Act generally requires that public records kept by state and local agencies be disclosed to the public upon request, for a nominal copying charge. It was amended in 1988 to exempt computer software from disclosure. But the amendment stated that

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.

     Therefore state agencies and local governments should provide copies of their computer data upon request to any member of the public, unless the requested data is subject to one of the express exemptions in the Public Records Act or another statute (e.g. for protection of an individual's privacy). But agencies regularly refuse to provide computer data in response to PRA requests, giving a variety of invalid legal reasons, e.g. "it's computer software" or "the request is burdensome, because it's asking for too much information." They feel free to assert these legal defenses they know to be invalid because they know that few requestors are willing to litigate.
     State and local agencies are replacing more and more of their traditional paper records with computer files and databases. As they do this, more and more public records become inaccessible to the public, in fact if not in theory.
     Our Data Litigation Project aims to reverse this trend.

GIS Parcel Data Suits - History

We're starting with GIS parcel data, which is mapping data describing the location of each individual legal parcel of land in each county. The California First Amendment Coalition was a pioneer in this area, with its suit to obtain GIS parcel data from Santa Clara County under the PRA. The resulting California Court of Appeal published opinion created a precedent requiring disclosure of this data under the PRA. The Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club was next, filing suit against Orange County to obtain the same type of data, after Orange County refused to disclose it. Dean Wallraff, our Executive Director, was heavily involved in this suit as a law clerk working for the Sierra Club's attorneys, Sabrina Venskus and Theresa Labriola. The Sierra Club is currently awaiting the trial-court opinion, and plans to appeal if it loses.

Our Work Obtaining GIS Parcel Data

 We are currently in the process of sending demand letters to several other California counties which still charge more for this type of data than the PRA allows and are planning to litigate if our requests are denied, as we expect. This litigation will be very cost-effective, since it will use outside attorneys working on a contingency/pro-bono basis for the attorney's fees the PRA mandates for prevailing plaintiffs. The litigation will be straightforward, using the processes and templates developed in the Sierra Club's suit against Orange County.
     GIS parcel data is mapping data showing the location, configuration and characteristics of each legal parcel of land. There are about 2.4 million land parcels in Los Angeles County, and about 640,000 in Orange county. GIS parcel data is read by Geographic Information Systems software to make maps. The maps are built layer by layer. One layer might depict streets; another layer shows rivers and streams; another shows topographic features such as mountains. Environmental mapping projects often focus on particular areas of land, such as the area being considered for a park or a development project. Parcel data can make the boundaries shown on these maps much more accurate.
     GIS parcel data was developed or purchased at public expense. Therefore, under the Public Records Act, the public should have free access to it. Most California counties provide it for the cost of copying. For example, Los Angeles County provides its complete dataset of GIS parcel data on DVD for $8. Orange County still charges $360,000, but the Sierra Club lawsuit is likely to compel the county to provide it to anyone upon reqeust for the cost of making a copy, e.g. $8. Title companies, developers, and real-estate corporations can afford to pay the hefty license fees that counties would like to charge, but the result is a two-tier system, where rich or well-connected entities have ready access to this data, but the average citizen or non-profit can't afford it.

Follow-On Litigation to Ensure Public Access to Public Data

Public agencies are keeping more and more public records as data files in computers, yet there are very few published California cases applying the PRA to computer data, even though the act, by its express terms, applies to "information stored in a computer." Most of the legal arguments made by Santa Clara and Orange Counties as to why GIS parcel data should be exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act could be applied to other types of data as well. Assessor's data, electronic accounting data, databases of all sorts, and other types of GIS data are subject to disclosure under the PRA. But public entities won't give up this data without a fight. Our plan for litigation in this area is to expand the case law outward from GIS parcel data to other types of data, so that it is eventually clear that all types of data that don't fall within one of the PRA exemptions -- e.g. protecting individuals' privacy -- must be disclosed to the public.

Please Donate to Support our Work

Achieving our project goal will require a long process with many lawsuits. Litigation in this area is very cost-effective for plaintiffs, since the Public Records Act provides for mandatory attorney's fees for prevailing plaintiffs. That is, if we sue County X to obtain data under the PRA and we win, the county must pay our costs and attorney's fees. Because of this, it is not difficult to find attorneys willing to work on these cases for contingency fees. We still need to pay costs, including filing fees, process server fees, transportation, copying, etc. And we would like to be able to pay staff to send demand letters, manage the process, participate in negotiations, etc.
      If you support our work in this area, please donate to our cause. Your donation will go far. Please send checks made out to "Advocates for the Environment" (our parent organization) to P.O. Box 4242, Sunland, CA 91041-4242. Donations are tax-deductible since Advocates for the Environment is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.