FOIA 101: Demystifying Public Records Laws in Each State


From request management to automating workflows, government agencies can find efficiencies with public records software solutions. Public records laws go by many names depending on the state, and they can be complicated enough to understand without adding a variety of terminology to the mix. Whether your state uses FOIA, FOIL, Right to Know, Sunshine Law, open records, or another term to refer to public records laws, understanding the nuances of each state’s law doesn’t have to be a mystery.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted in 1967 and provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. Since then, each state has implemented their own public records laws which define how records are recorded and shared with the public. From state to state, there are differences in how public records are recorded, retained, and shared. Additionally, states have instituted their own guidelines around these laws, including:

  • response times
  • which branches of government are included
  • exemptions over certain requests
  • reporting laws
  • fees which can be charged for records and where waivers are applicable
  • penalties for non-compliance

A guide to public records laws and terminology

Let’s examine some of the most used terms for public records laws and how they are used by different states.

Access to Public Records Act (APRA)

Laws about public records in Indiana and Rhode Island fall under the Access to Public Records Act (APRA). In Indiana, the APRA applies to all three branches of the government and dictates that a requester should receive a response in a “reasonable amount of time.” Additionally, requests are subject to fees for duplication in Indiana but can be waived in some cases.

The APRA in Rhode Island allows government offices 10 days to respond to a public records request, which can be extended an additional 20 business days for “good cause.” Public records laws apply to all three government branches in the state but only apply to the judicial administrative records in that branch. Rhode Island’s APRA allows agencies to collect fees for duplication, retrieval, and search but a court may reduce or waive fees if the request is in the public interest. Penalties up to $2,000 against a public body or official may be assessed for non-compliance.
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Data Practices Act

The Data Practices Act guides public records law in Minnesota. Known as the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, no specific response times are enforced; government offices must respond to a request “within a reasonable amount of time.” The Data Practices Act has a high level of exemption, as public records laws apply only to the executive branch, but not the legislative or judicial branches. However, individual legislators are subject to certain provisions governing elected officials and candidates for elected office. Requesters may be required to pay the actual costs for search, duplication, and certification. Additionally, government employees face a maximum penalty of $15,000 per violation for noncompliance with request fulfillment.
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Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

One of the most widely used terms guiding public records laws among states is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA acronym is used in many states, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia (DC). However, using the term “FOIA” is about where the similarities end for these states.

When it comes to the time these states have to respond to a FOIA request, there is some variation. Arkansas government entities have 3 days to respond, while Connecticut allows up to 4 days to acknowledge the request (final response in Connecticut can take up to 12 weeks). Illinois, Virginia, and West Virginia allow up to 5 days to respond.. In South Carolina, public bodies must respond to requests within 10 days, but have up to 20 days if the requested record is more than 24 months old at the time of the request. The FOIA response time is 15 days for DC, Delaware, and Michigan.

Similarly, some states allow no FOIA request exemptions for any branch of government while some do. FOIA requests apply to all three branches of the government in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, South Carolina, and West Virginia. In DC, the judicial branch is exempt from FOIA requests. FOIA requests only apply to the executive branch in Michigan and Virginia.

Under the FOIA, all these states allow fees to be charged for public records for labor and tasks such as search, retrieval, duplication, transcription, and redaction. Michigan will reduce the fees if the response is deemed untimely. Most of these states will allow fees to be waived under certain circumstances except for Arkansas and West Virginia where fee waivers are not allowed.

States guided by the FOIA take compliance seriously and nearly all within this group will issue fines for government employees who obstruct request fulfillment. In South Carolina, noncompliance will result in a maximum fine of $500 while in Connecticut and West Virginia the maximum fine is $1,000. Those offices found out of compliance in Virginia are subject to fines up to $1,000 for the first offense, and up to $2,500 for future offenses. In Illinois, noncompliance results in a minimum fine of $2,500 and maximum of $5,000 for each occurrence. Similarly, Michigan laws state noncompliance will cost offenders a minimum fine of $2,500 and a maximum of $7,500 for each occurrence. In Arkansas, negligent violation is a Class C misdemeanor and violators are subject to civil judicial enforcement as well as attorney’s fees.
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In New York, the state public records law is known as the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). The New York FOIL allows up to 5 days to respond to a request. The judicial branch of New York government is exempt from the FOIL, though court records held by state agencies are considered public records and other laws permit the release of these records. Additionally, under New York’s FOIL, government agencies can collect fees for related to duplication, storage, document preparation, and labor; these fees cannot be waived. The FOIL does not specify penalties for noncompliance.
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Freedom of Access Act

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act grants government offices up to five days to acknowledge a public records request and allows for collection of fees, including labor fees at $25 per hour after the first two hours. Fees can also be collected for duplication and record compilation including redaction. The judicial branch in Maine is exempt under the Freedom of Access Act except for records and memos associated with the development of legislative reports. In addition, Maine’s state agencies are subject to a maximum $500 fine for noncompliance for the first offense; a fine of up to $1,000 for a violation committed not more than 4 years after a previous violation judgment in the same agency; a fine of up to $2,000 for a violation committed not more than 4 years after two or more violations in the same agency.
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Utah’s public records guide is known as the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) which allows up to 10 days for a response to public records requests. The GRAMA applies to all three branches of Utah’s government and allows for state agencies to collect fees for duplication and labor over 15 minutes. Government agency employees found to be noncompliant can be charged with a Class B misdemeanor under Utah’s GRAMA.
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In New Mexico, records are subject to the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA). New Mexico government agencies have up to 15 days to respond to a public records request and the law applies to all three branches of government. Fees for duplication, transmission, and storage devices are allowed under IPRA and cannot be waived. Government agencies face fines of up to $100 per day for noncompliance.
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Open Records Act

Public records are also known as open records across the country. The laws guiding open records are referred to as the Open Records Act in several states, including Colorado (CORA), Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Like other public record terms, the Open Records Act varies from state to state.

The Open Records Act in most of these states specifies a certain number of days in which state agencies must respond to public records requests. However, no specific deadline language exists in the Open Records Act in North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. In Colorado, Georgia, and Kansas, agencies have three days to respond, with Colorado allowing up to seven days. Kentucky and Nevada laws allows up to five days; while Tennessee allows up to seven days. Iowa is by far the most lenient in this group, allowing up to 20 calendar days for a response.

In nearly all these states, the Open Records Act dictates that the law applies to all three branches of government. An exception applies in Iowa where the legislative branch is exempt from the Open Records Act. Collection of fees related to request response is allowed in all states and include costs for duplication, labor, document search, and retrieval. These fees can potentially be waived in Colorado, Georgia, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. The Open Records Act in Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, and Tennessee will not allow fees associated with processing public records to be waived.

Noncompliance with the Open Records Act is taken seriously and is punishable by fines in many of these states. Nevada has the highest fines in this group, with $1,000 for the first offense, $5,000 for the second offense, and $10,000 per third or subsequent offense within 10 years. The Open Records Act dictates a maximum fine of up to $2,500 in Iowa; $1,000 in North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin; $500 in Kansas, and Oklahoma; and $100 and up to 90 days in jail in Colorado. Fines are not specified for noncompliance in Kentucky or Tennessee.
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The Open Public Records Act (OPRA) guides public records laws in New Jersey and allows up to seven days for agencies to respond to requests. OPRA is applicable to all government branches in New Jersey. It allows for the collection of fees for duplication and special services related to processing public records requests but requesters may apply for a fee waiver. OPRA dictates a penalty of for noncompliance of either $1,000 or $2,500; repeat offenders face up to 10 years in jail.
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Public Information Act (PIA)

Public records in Maryland and Texas fall under each state’s Public Information Act (PIA). Maryland state agencies have up to 30 days to fulfill public records requests under PIA and all three branches of government are subject to the act; while Texas law requires a request response within 10 days and specifies all government agencies may withhold records under certain circumstances.The PIA outlines that Maryland and Texas government agencies may collect fees related to processing public records requests and these fees can be waived when appropriate. A maximum fee of $1,000 can be enforced for noncompliance with the PIA in each state.
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Public Records

Many states simply file open or public records under the Public Records Requests law. Several states across the country are using this term including: Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, California (CPRA), Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.

Response times to public records requests vary widely by state. In Vermont, agencies have three days; Louisiana allows up to three days; Nebraska law stipulates four days; Washington permits its agencies to take up to five days to respond. In Mississippi, state agencies have up to 7 days to respond. Alaska, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Massachusetts Public Records laws allow up to 10 days to respond. Alabama, Arizona, Montana, and North Carolina do not designate a certain number of days by which agencies must respond.

The Public Records Request law applies to all three branches of government in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Oregon. The judicial and legislative branches are exempt from the Public Records Request law in Massachusetts. Judicial records in Mississippi are exempt.

Fee collection related to processing requests, including duplication, labor, redaction, postage, and other fees, is allowed in all these states under the Public Records Request law. Fee waivers for media requests or those made in the public interest are allowed in Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon. Fee waivers are not permitted in Alabama, Arizona, California, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, or Washington. Maximum fines for noncompliance are specified in several states and include up to $100 per violation in Mississippi, up to $500 and/or three months of jail time in Nebraska, up to $1,000 in Idaho and Louisiana, and not less than $1,000 but up to $5,000 in Massachusetts..

Washington has a unique reporting requirement related to public records laws not found in other states. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) is a body that receives, analyzes, and reports on metrics of agencies spending over $100,000 per year responding to public records requests annually. These reporting metrics include costs, response timeframes, number and type of requests, and other response-related measures.
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Right to Know

Public records in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania fall under the Right to Know law. In both states, government agencies have up to 5 days to respond to public records requests. Pennsylvania and New Hampshire apply the Right to Know law to all three government branches in each state.

New Hampshire does not allow for fees to be waived for media or other purposes; while Pennsylvania does allow for waivers. Noncompliance with Right to Know results in fines in each state – in New Hampshire offenders face a penalty of up to $2,000; while Pennsylvania fines up to $1,500 for such an offense.
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Sunshine Law

One of the more upbeat terms for public records regulations is the Sunshine Law, which is used in Florida, Missouri, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Response times vary among these four states – Missouri agencies must respond within 3 days and Wyoming allows up to 30 days for a response. Sunshine Laws in Florida and South Dakota dictate no specific deadline for a public records response.

Sunshine Laws in Missouri, and Wyoming apply to all three government branches (though Missouri specifies provisions governing access to judicial records). Florida’s executive branch is exempt from this law. Sunshine Laws in Missouri and South Dakota allow fees to be waived for requests serving the public interest; but Florida and Wyoming do not allow these waivers. Missouri will fine agencies up to $5,000 for noncompliance, while Wyoming fines are capped at $750.
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Uniform Information Practices Act

The Hawaii Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) governs access to public records. The law allows Hawaii government agencies up to 10 days to respond to public records requests. The UIPA applies to all three branches of the Hawaii government and permits agencies to collect fees related to request processing, including duplication, search, and review. Fee waivers for media requests or those made in the public interest are allowed under the UIPA. Fees not less than $1,000 will be assessed for noncompliance. Hawaii is one of the only states which has created a government agency, the Office of Information Practices, that deals exclusively with public records requests.

Every state defines its public records laws in various ways and that includes what these laws are called. Compliance with public records is a critical matter many states are facing, and many government agencies have turned to GovQA public records software solutions. No matter how your state refers to these important laws, public records management can be a critical tool in alleviating request volume, noncompliance and litigation risk (including high legal fees), and security issues.
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