The University of Arizona®

 

Your right to know:

Accessing public records for everyday life

 

Tuesday Talks @ The University Libraries
December 1, 2009
 

David Cuillier, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
School of Journalism
University of Arizona
Marshall Building 328
520-626-9694
cuillier@email.arizona.edu

 

 
The following handouts cover practical records that can help you in your community, neighborhood, and relationships, as well as tips for planning your public records request, writing a public records request letter, and handling denials.
 
David Cuillier, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists and co­author with Charles Davis of the forthcoming book, The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records (CQ Press, February 2010). He teaches a class on the law, history and issues concerning access to government records (Journalism 447/547, offered to all majors online winter session).

 


 

 

 

1. Access for Your Community

 

Public safety

1.      Air quality
Air quality violators are fined by county and state air quality departments (see an example of Maricopa County settlements at http://www.azcentral.com/news/datacenter/air.html). In Pima County, the Department of Environmental Quality maps ozone levels and provides other records of air quality, such as dust complaints (http://www.airinfonow.org/).

2.      Bridge problems
To assess the safety of bridges in the community. Inspection records are maintained by states and the Federal Highway Administration (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/britab.cfm - click on "Download NBI ASCII files").
 
3.      Code enforcement
Code enforcement records detail noise violations, illegal businesses in residential zones, illegal dumping, huge signs, and other problems. Check with the city code enforcement office (http://wvvw.tucsonaz.gov/esd/Codes_/codes_.html).

4.      Disease control
The county Disease Control Administrative Office keeps epidemiology reports documenting outbreaks of disease. For more information, see http://www.pimahealth.org/disease/index.html#epidemiology

5.      Environmental hazards
Superfund sites in Arizona are available at http://www.epa.gov/region09/cleanup/arizona.html. Toxic release inventory information provides what bad stuff different companies and industry release in your community. A good site to find that EPA information is at the Right to Know Web site: http://data.rtknet.org/tri/. Government also monitors other environmental hazards, such as leaking underground gas tanks and groundwater (http://www.azdeq.gov/environ/water/index.html).

6.      Fire incident reports
To monitor fire departments and spot trends, such as arson, dangerous homes, public buildings that are hazards, etc. Check with the fire agency (such as Tucson Fire Department, http://www.tucsonaz.gov/fire/) to examine incident reports.
 
7.      Hotel room inspections
The Pima County Health Department inspects hotel rooms to make sure that the towels and sheets are changed, and that the other parts are cleaned well. Check inspection reports for your favorite hotel.
 
8.      Pool inspections
County health departments inspect public pools and spas to make sure they are safe (chlorination levels, fencing, etc.). Check with the Pima County Health Department Consumer Health and Food Safety Department to see if your favorite public pool is maintained well.

9.      Restaurant inspections
To make sure the public is protected from unsanitary conditions at restaurants and other venues. Find the worst restaurants, as well as any other public eatery, such as grocery store delis. In Pima County, check a restaurant's health inspection reports at http://www.pimahealth.org/restaurants/ratings/index.asp

10.    Train wrecks
To identify the most dangerous train-road intersection in the community and other trends. The Federal Railroad Administration provides train wreck data back to 1975 online for downloading and analysis (http://safetydata.fra.dot.gov/officeofsafety/). Click under "Downloads" on the toolbar, "Accident data on demand" then choose "Highway Rail Accidents." Choose a year, your state and a format (Excel).
 
11.    Truck accidents
To identify trouble spots in the community where semi-trucks tend to crash and burn (particularly on interstate highways). The U.S. Department of Transportation collects accident reports involving commercial trucks over 10,000 pounds. First check with Arizona Department of Transportation for information. Can also get federal data from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration.
 
12.    Water quality
Counties and cities measure drinking water quality and provides those results in reports. For more information about what is recorded, see http://www.tucsonaz.gov/tucsonwater/clearwater?output=supply.

13.    Weather
To examine trends in climate change in the community and compare weather conditions in one neighborhood to another (weather can vary among different parts of town because of elevation, topography and pavement effects). The National Climatic Data Center provides tons of data summarizing temperatures, rain, wind and other conditions for each individual monitoring station going back more than 100 years. The agency also has a database of storms, including tornadoes, hurricanes, snowstorms, flash floods and drought. See http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/ncdc.html
 
 
 

Crime
 

1.     911 logs
To spot trends in crime, medical calls and response times by police officers and fire trucks. They typically list time/date, location, call type and responding units, and are public in Arizona. Tucson's emergency dispatch is handled by the city's Communications Division. (Also, see "crime logs")
 
2.     Arrest reports
Available at local law enforcement offices, usually from a public information officer or officer in charge. If the case is still under investigation (someone's still on the loose or they haven't forwarded the information to the prosecutor yet for potential charges), then policy may keep some of the information secret IF it would harm the investigation, Police sometimes don't apply that balancing test and say everything is secret if it's still under investigation, but they are supposed to be able to demonstrate that the information would hurt the investigation. If they can't, the information should be public, even if still under investigation (as per Arizona case law). If a person is wrongfully arrested they can request that the records be purged (A.R.S. 13-4051).
 
3.     Arrest warrants
An arrest warrant is signed by a judge authorizing the arrest of someone for probable cause. It usually allows police to barge into a house and make an arrest when there is reason to believe the person has committed a crime (drug house, homicide, etc.). Often warrants have a lot of information because police are trying to justify to a judge the need to arrest the person. These are similar to search warrants, which also require justification and approval by a judge. Warrants are usually made public once the person is served (arrested or searched), or when it appears it won't be able to be served (the person skipped the country). Warrants are kept in criminal files at the court clerk's office at the county Courthouse, 110 W. Congress St.
 
4.     Campus crime information
Thanks to the federal Clery Act (a.k.a. Buckley Amendment or Campus Security Act), if there are serious crimes happening on the UA campus that information has to be made available to the public. If you're wondering who got arrested at that fraternity date dash last weekend, but no one's talking, you can go down to the UA Police Department and put in a request for an incident report or check out the crime log. You can also look up statistics for other universities around the nation and compare them to the UA by searching this website U.S. Department of Education Web site: http://www.ope.ed.gov/security/
 

5.     Crime log
A barebones list of incidents, usually including address, time/date, one-word description, and disposition. Also called a "police blotter." Basic crime records and statistics, as well as traffic accident information by intersection, are also put online by the Tucson Police, including a crime map, at http://tpdinternet.tucsonaz.gov/Stats/. The FBI keeps crime statistics (Uniform Crime Reports) for all cities, and provides data online for cities over 100,000.
 
6.     Sex offenders
In Arizona, as in most states, it's easy to look up sex offenders (the most dangerous ones, usually level 2 & 3) online. Go to http://az.gov/app/sows/home.xhtml to find sex offenders by zip code or other search functions. Note that a variety of studies have found registries to be relatively inaccurate, so the person may or may not actually live where the registry says the person lives. For registries in other states,
http://www.publicrecordfinder.com/criminal.html.

7.     Stolen vehicles
Request stolen vehicle data to analyze popular makes, models and locations of car thieves. See hot spots and cars in Tucson at http://tpdinternet.tucsonaz.gov/Stats/Auto.html. To look up a specific plate number or VIN number, go to http://theftaz.azag.gov/.
 


Holding government accountable 
 

1.     Appeals
When someone objects to a decision a government agency makes, they often are able to make an appeal. Some agencies have formal appeal procedures, depending on the issue. Check with the agency's attorney.
 
2.     Audits
To monitor problems in government agencies, particularly financial woes. The Arizona Office of the Auditor General audits state and local agencies and provides its findings online (http://www.auditorgen.state.az.us/). Look carefully to find any irregularities – often clouded by vague terms and wishy-washy language. Ask to get more details.
 
3.     Budgets
Detailed budgets are available before and after approval. Can be helpful to see what departments are getting more money over time and what areas are getting less funding. Get them from the agency's budget officer.
 
4.     Calendars
To find out how top officials are spending their time. Look at their calendars, or day schedules, to see who they are meeting with and the extent of their workload. Should also be able to get travel expenses. Request from the office you are interested in, such as the mayor's office if you want to see the mayor's calendar.
 
5.     Claims
If someone feels a government agency owes them compensation for damages (slipping on a sidewalk, hit by police car, etc.), they often file a claim before filing lawsuit. Check with the risk management officer or attorney for the agency. For Tucson, that would be at the finance department at Tucson City Hall, 255 W. Alameda (http://www.tucsonaz.gov/finance/).

6.     Contracts
Allows you to find out who is benefiting from government projects. Should include the amount agreed upon, the amount paid (often more), who the money went to, etc. Contact an agency's business office. To find whether a contractor is licensed and contact information, see the state contractor database at http://www.azroc.gov/cIsc/AZROCLicenseQuery
 
7.     Corporate records
To spot connections between public companies and identify key officers. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission provides a wealth of information on public companies online, including initial public offering files (Form S-1), quarterly reports (Form 10-Q), annual reports (Form 10-K), and top officer information (Form DEF 14A). Can search EDGAR, http://www.sec.gov/cgi-bin/srch-edgar. To find owners and incorporation dates for Arizona companies, search by name online at the Secretary of State's Web site, http://vvww.azsos.gov/scriptsiTNT_Search_engine.d11.

8.     Discrimination
To track trends in discrimination. The Tucson Office of Equal Opportunity Programs (http://www.tucsonaz.gov/eoo/) enforces equity policy for the city to make sure city employees aren't discriminating based on race, age and other factors. While identities might not be public, general description and trends should be available.
 
9.     E-mail
To monitor government function and make sure business that should be conducted in public isn't being handled secretly via e-mail. In Arizona e-mail of public officials is considered public (Star Publishing v. Pima County Attorney's Office, 1994).
 
10.    Elections
To see who is funding candidates and campaigns. Campaign finance records for local candidates are available at the Pima County Elections Division, 130 W. Congress St. (http://www.pima.gov/elections/campaignfinancial_reports.htm). State campaign data is kept by the Arizona Secretary of State (http://www.azsos.gov/election/ and federal candidate information is maintained by the Federal Election Commission (http://www.fec.gov/). National data also are kept by Project Vote Smart (http://www.vote­smart.org/) and the Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/).

11.    Employees
To identify cronyism and find former employees. Can request records of employee names, titles and salaries. Employee home addresses and home phone numbers, however, are generally not public (and secret by law for police officers, judges, etc.).
 
12.    Expense reports
To monitor government spending and see if government employees are cheating the system. Check with the business office of an agency. Can ask for credit-card logs as well.
 
13.    Legislative records
To examine the voting records of legislators, bill wording, legislators' attendance, and find people who testify on issues. Find bill and vote information at http://www.azleg.gov/.

14.    Meeting minutes
To monitor city councils, school boards and other government bodies. Meeting notices, agendas and minutes are almost always public. Check with the clerk's office at the respective agency.
 
15.    Public records requests
To find what public records are being requested by businesses, citizens, government employees and journalists. Request from the public records officer copies of the public records request and any log used to track requests.
 
16.    Retention schedules
To find out what records an agency keeps and when it purges them. Most public agencies have established retention schedules to determine how long they will keep different records and when they can get rid of them. Check with the individual agency to find its retention schedule, usually held by a clerk or records officer.
 
17.    Property tax refunds
To find whether someone is scamming the system by setting up dummy corporations to get bogus property tax refunds. Check with the Pima County Assessor's Office (http://www.asr.co.pima.az.us/) for assessment appeals, and the treasurer's office (http:/lwww.to.pima.gov/) for refunds.
 
18.    Telephone records
Telephone records of public employees on their work phones, including cell phone records, can identify corruption and questionable connections by listing who the employee talked to along with the time and date. In some states, such as Texas, courts are ruling that messages regarding work topics of public officials are open, even when sent on personal cell phones and Blackberry devices.
 
19.    UA common data set and fact book
This website shows everything the UA has to offer in statistical breakdowns, providing you an opportunity to then go and ask for original records to analyze yourself. It starts with general information like the address and type of the university (coed-public) and degrees offered. It lists enrollment numbers, graduation rates, number of admissions for first-time first-year freshman and transfer students and the university's academic offerings and policies. It also lists all of the extracurricular activities the university offers, like ROTC, pep bands, dance, yearbook, etc. and then goes on to list the average annual expenses for the students and financial aid statistics and much more. It's a good place to get ideas for what other records are out there that you might request and analyze. http://oire.arizona.edu/CommonDataSet.asp

20.    Use of force
Look at how police use – or overuse – force during arrests. Each time an officer uses a choke hold, gun, taser, police dog, baton or other use of force a form is filled out. Get them from the police department.
 

  

  

Buying a house

1.     Abandoned buildings
In Tucson it is illegal to have a building vacant and boarded up for more than 180 days. The city tracks vacant and open buildings through the Department of Neighborhood Resources, 320 N. Commerce Park Loop Sentinel Building, 2"d Floor. The department also tracks housing code violations, junk cars, and other neighborhood nuisances.
 
2.     Airport noise
Airports track noise complaints from neighbors when jets fly low or are particularly noisy. This is particularly important in Tucson where an Air Force base and commercial airport keep planes humming over an urban area. Get flight maps and noise maps at http://wwvtr.tucsonairport.org/community/html/community_environment_noise.html. For Davis-Monthan Air Force Base's noise information, see http://www.dm.af.mil/units/communityinitiatives/index.asp.

3.     Census
Demographic data available down to the block group level and over time can be used to analyze shifts in community demographics, including in migration, income, race, education, gender, and age. Challenging to burrow through the Census Web site (www.census.gov), but it's all there.
 
4.     Development
To identify development trends and potential building that could impact the community or a neighborhood. Find out what permits for development have been submitted and approved for an area. Go to the city planning and development department to see development plans. Some of the information is available online in Tucson, at http://www.tucsonaz.gov/PRO/pro/devactionsrch.jsp

5.     Dog bites
Pima County Animal Control (http://www.pimaanimalcare.org/) tracks dog bites in the county in a database (see example of data and its use by Arizona Daily Star at http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/158747).

6.     Drug houses
Can see if any homes in your neighborhood had drug problems (or a house you are thinking of buying). Provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at http://www.dea.gov/seizures/arizona.html.
 
7.     Graffiti
The city of Tucson covers over graffiti about 15,000 times a year. Make sure you don't buy a house that is on this tag list every week. Contact the Department of Neighborhood Resources, 320 N. Commerce Park Loop Sentinel Building, 2nd Floor.
 
8.     Liquor licenses
To identify bars and restaurants that are nuisances (have a lot of bar fights and problems for neighbors) and not following liquor laws. Request liquor licenses and suspensions from the Arizona Department of Liquor License and Control (http://www.azliquor.gov/). The Tucson City Clerk (http://www.tucsonaz.gov/clerks/) maintains more detailed records about special events and existing licenses.
 
9.     Neighborhood newsletters
A lot of cities have offices to coordinate neighborhood associations, so you might be able to get copies of newsletters and other information about the area you are thinking of moving to. For example, Tucson posts newsletters, maps and other information online at http://www.tucsonaz.gov/hcd/d/Neighborhoods/neighborhoods.html.

10.    Odor complaints
Most municipal sewage treatment plants, including Pima County, track complaints of their sewage stink, which enables people to identify trends and know where not to buy a house. Contact the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department (http://www.pima.gov/wwm/).

11.    Parks plans
Find out if there are any plans for additional parks or trails near the house. Check your city our county parks department.
 
12.    Party violations
Find out if you have a party house next door. The Tucson Police Department tracks each time a house is tagged for excessive party noise. The records are also forwarded to the university for potential punishment in addition to potential fines.
 
13.    Property taxes
Identify your neighbors, previous owners of the house you are considering buying, and see what other properties are worth. Property tax records are public at county courthouses. In Pima County, this information can be found online with a keyword search (including name), at http://www.asr.pima.gov/. More detailed paper records are at the Pima County Assessor's Office, 115 N. Church.
 
14.    School information
Can find school "report cards" at http://wmv.ade.az.gov/srcs/find_school.asp?rdoYear=2007. Be aware, however, that test scores are often an indicator of school demographics (education level of parents) rather than quality school. Also can get from the school a breakdown of weapons incidents and percentage of students on free or reduced lunch (an indicator of the demographics of the area). Anything related to the education of a specific identifiable student is secret because of FERPA, except for directory information, including name, year, home address, phone number, date of birth etc. (unless the parent or adult student wishes the information to not be disclosed). See
http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html. Also, serious criminal incidents are public as per the Clery Act.
 
15.    Street maintenance
Street departments, such as Tucson's (http://dot.tucsonaz.gov/streets/), track pothole complaints and other problems. Find out if any street work is planned for your home.
 
16.   Traffic accidents
To find out dangerous intersections and stretches of roads. Tucson PD puts traffic accident data online by intersection at http://tpdinternet.tucsonaz.gov/Stats/. Can be difficult to get specific accident reports in Arizona if they are required to be filled out by a city or town (A.R.S. 28-671), but are still available. For example, the Pima County Sheriffs Office provides its accident reports online, searchable by name of driver, date of accident or other search terms (http://pimacsdaz.policereports.us/). The only hitch is it costs $5 per report. Also, you can analyze the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System data for every fatal accident in the nation going back to 1975 (http://www­fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx).

17.    Zoning
To analyze growth planning and find who is benefiting by development. Find out how land is zoned and what development is possible. Also look at comprehensive plans, which map out the general future of a community. Go to the city planning and development department to find zoning maps, comprehensive plans, and development plans. Some of the information is available online in Tucson, such as zoning maps at http://www.tucsonaz.gov/planning/maps/zoning/zonemaps.htm#Top0fPage and development permits at

 

 

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1.     Bank records
To examine the saliency of your bank. While an individual's bank records are secret, as well as most State Banking Department records (A.R.S. 6-129), many documents filed by enterprises with the State Banking Department are public (A.R.S. 6-129.01). See http://azdfi.gov/ for records maintained by the state.
 
2.     Charities
To find out whether someone asking for money is registered with the state. The Arizona Secretary of State collects information about charitable organizations and posts basic contact information online at http://www.azsos.gov/scripts/Charity_Search.d11. The state, however, does not determine whether the charity is legitimate. Complaints are investigated by the Attorney General (http://www.azag.gov/consumer/charitable.html). For more detailed information about non-profit charities, see the entry on "non-profits" below.
 
3.     Child-care complaints
To assess how well child-care (daycare) is handled in your daycare. Records handled by the Arizona Department of Health Services. See, for example, data acquired by the Arizona Daily Star at http://regulus2.azstarnet.com/childcare/

4.     Broadcaster files
The Federal Communications Commission requires broadcasters to keep records available to the public, including educational programming they are required to air. Should be available at the station.
 
5.     Doctor discipline
Disciplinary records against doctors by the Arizona Medical Board are public (http://www.azmd.gov/).

6.     Gas-pump inspections
To make sure gas stations aren't ripping off consumers. The Arizona Department of Weights and Measures (http://azdwm.gov/) inspects each gas pump in the state. See data collected by the Arizona Republic at
7.     Incorporation records
To find out who owns a business. Look up city business licenses at the finance department at Tucson City Hall, 255 W. Alameda (http://www.tucsonaz.gov/finance/), or state articles of incorporation at the Secretary of State (http://www.azsos.gov/scripts/TNT_Search_engine.d11). This is helpful if you are trying to figure out who is really behind a business name.
 
8.     Lawyer discipline
To find lawyers who have been disciplined. The State Bar of Arizona provides online a lawyer locator and reports for each year detailing lawyers that have been reprimanded, suspended, disbarred and reinstated
 
9.     Medical devices
To identify medical devices that have failed, how they failed and the manufacturer. The "MAUDE" database is maintained by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Also maintains the Adverse Event Reporting system that flags safety issues regarding pharmaceutical drugs. Check out
10.    Non-profit 990 forms
To make sure non-profits are actually not out to make a profit and just using 501c(3) status to avoid paying taxes. Also can find a variety of information about non-profits' income, expenses and officers through the 990 forms they file annually. To see 990 forms, go to www.guidestar.com. You have to register but most of the site is free.
 
11.    Nursing home inspections
To identify unsafe nursing homes. Pending investigations are not public (A.R.S. 36­446.10). Can get comparisons nationally by Medicare at http://www.medicare.gov/NHCompare/Include/DataSection/Questions/SearchCriteria.asp ?version=default&browser=1E%7C7%7CWinXP&Ianguage=English&defaultstatus=0&pag elist=Home&CookiesEnabledStatus=True.
 
12.    Price-scanning inspections
To assess which stores might be ripping off consumers. The state Department of Weights and Measures (http://azdwm.gov/) inspects store pricing scanners to make sure they are accurate.
 
13.    Product recalls
To monitor the safety of consumer products, including food and medicine (FDA), consumer products (CPSC), meat (USDA), cars (NHTSA), pesticides (EPA) and boating safety (Coast Guard). Check out recalled products for all these agencies at http://www.recalls.gov/search.html.

14.    Professor course evaluations
This website allows you to look at the course evaluation records for various classes or teachers. After entering your UA NetID and password, you can check ratings by course or by instructor and view a summary of all of the course evaluation sheets filled out for that particular course or a teacher and all the classes they've taught. https://aer.arizona.edu/ASUA/. The information should be available to the public as well and a person should be able to get a copy of the whole database to analyze trends and spot the highest and lowest rated professors on campus.
 
15.    Salaries
Names, titles and salaries of public employees are available. Also, get overtime pay and actual pay (not just budgeted salary) to find janitors who make more than the mayor. You can request the information from the university. Or, see what the Arizona Daily Star posted at http://azstarnet.com/special/universitysalaries, and see state employee salaries provided by the Arizona Republic at
16.    Taxi inspections
To assess the safety of taxis. The Arizona Department of Weights and Measures (http://azdwm.gov/) inspects taxis.
 
17.    Unclaimed property
To see what property and funds are owed to citizens by the government (and has gone unclaimed). Request records from the state Department of Revenue. You can also search for yourself or friends at http://www.azunclaimed.gov/.

 

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Family history

1.     Birth certificates
To verify the identity, birth date and birthplace of someone. Arizona is a closed state, so the only people allowed to get a copy are the actual person, parent, spouse, adult children, siblings and some other limited persons. For more info, see http://www.azdhs.gov/vitaIrcd/birth_index.htm. Can see birth certificates from 1887 to 1931 at http://genealogy.az.gov/.

2.     Autopsy reports
Confirm cause of death or circumstances of a person's death, or to find out if a particular illness runs in the family. Autopsy reports are public records in Arizona, and available from the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office.
 
3.     Death certificates
To explain causes of death. Even though traditionally the dead have been considered to have no right to privacy, in Arizona these records are kept secret except for family members. For more information, see http://www.azdhs.gov/vitalrcd/death_index.htm. Can find death certificates from 1878 to 1956 at http://genealogy.az.gov/.

 
 

Check-a-date

1.     Bankruptcy files
To identify trends in bankruptcies, spot fraud, and find people with unfortunate financial pasts. Chapter 7 is a straight bankruptcy and Chapter 11 is a reorganization that usually allows them to stay in business. Businesses in bankruptcy lose a fair amount of privacy as the files list assets, how they got into trouble and what they intend to do to get back on their feet. U.S. Bankruptcy Court maintains records. Some can be found online at http://www.azb.uscourts.gov/. Or, go to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court office in Tucson, 38 S. Scott Ave., to look at the paper files.
 
2.     Civil lawsuits
When a person sues another person, the case ends up in civil court. Examples of civil cases include malpractice, child support, divorce, libel, paternity, property rights, restraining orders and breach of contract. Superior Court handles big cases and municipal courts (small-claims) handle the little things (like you see on Judge Judy). Pima County Superior Court cases can be found by searching business name or person's name at http://www.cosc.co.pima.az.us/home.asp?include=pages/record_search.htm and most of the documents are also online. The paper files are available in the court clerk's office on the second floor of the courthouse, 255 W. Alameda.
 
3.     Criminal records
To find criminal backgrounds of individuals. Can look up court cases in Pima County at http://www.cosc.co.pima.az.us/home.asp?include=pages/record_search.htm and then get details in the paper files at the court clerk's office at the county courthouse, 110 W. Congress St. Compilations of criminal histories held by the state, however, are secret (A.R.S. 41-619.54(C)). Basically, you can gather information from individual courthouses, but you can't see combined "rap sheets" already put together by the state. That follows the thinking from a U.S. Supreme Court case DOJ v. Reporters Committee). However, you can find some case information statewide at http://www.supreme.state.az.us/publicaccess/notification/default.asp.
 
4.     Divorce cases
Available at the court clerk's office on the second floor of the Pima County Courthouse, 110 W. Congress St. Can look up names and get case numbers online at http://www.cosc.co.pima.az.us/home.asp?include=pages/record_search.htm and then view the paper files in person at the courthouse.
 
5.     Income taxes
Individual and corporate income tax returns are private. However, when a taxpayer wants to challenge the IRS it does so in U.S. Tax Court, and those records are public (see http://apps.irs.gov/news/efoia/determine.html).

6.     Jail records
The jail log is a list of people booked in the jail, including name, time/date, and charge. More detailed information can be found in the booking sheets. Also can get jail mugs and examine budgets, jail population statistics, and overtime to monitor operations. Get basic jail log information from the Pima County Jail's online inmate lookup (http://www.sheriff.pima.gov/inmate/lookup.htm). To find a person in a state prison, go to http://www.adc.state.az.us/inmate_datasearch/index.aspx

7.     Juvenile records
Juvenile criminal records, including arrest records and disposition hearing summaries, are public in more than a dozen states, including Arizona (A.R.S. 8-208).
 
8.     Marriage licenses
To find current and ex-spouses. They are kept by the court clerk on the second floor of the Pima County Courthouse, 110 W. Congress St. For more information, see http://www.cosc.co.pima.az.us/home.asp?include=pages/marriage_licenses.htm

9.     Name change
To see if someone is hiding under a new identity. Records are held by the court clerk at the Pima County Courthouse, 110 W. Congress St.
 
10.    Parking tickets
Get a database of parking tickets from the city of Tucson or the University of Arizona. The university has been reluctant to provide names, saying that parking tickets are protected under FERPA because they are "educational records." However, their position is tenuous and when the same argument has been used in other states courts (such as Maryland) have ruled against universities. Parking tickets also show up at the state Supreme Court case database, http://www.supreme.state.az.us/publicaccess/notification/default.asp

11.    Personnel records
Confirm whether someone is a public employee and identify bad workers through disciplinary records. Not always public in Arizona, so can be difficult to get, such as disciplinary actions against teachers. Easier to get for high-ranking officials because a greater public interest.
 
12.    Probate
When someone dies and leaves property or doesn't have a will, it goes through probate –the government has to figure out how to fairly divvy up the goods. Probate records are kept at the Pima County Superior Court clerk's office, 110 W. Congress St. Look up a name online at http://www.agave.cosc.pima.gov/PublicDocs/.

13.    Uniform Commercial Code (big loans)
To find what loans someone has for property, yachts, etc. Can search by debtor name at http://www.azsos.gov/scripts/ucc_search.d11
 
 
 

Finding people

1.     Airplane pilots
The Federal Aviation Administration Aircraft Registry includes owner name and pilot information at landings.com: http://wvvw.landings.com/evird.acgapasel 47452239!_h­www.landings.com/_landings/pages/search/search_namdfull.html.
 
2.     Commercial Web sites
A variety of commercial vendors acquire large databases of public records and boil down the information for a fee. Some Web sites have a lot of information that might be helpful (for free or pay), based on a mixture of government records and other information collected voluntarily or otherwise. Here are some Web sites (put your own name in them to see how accurate they are):
  • www.zabasearch.com. Finds previous addresses, phone numbers and possible relatives for free, and more for a fee.
  • www.pipl.com. This Web site is much more thorough, including pictures it finds of the people online, high school, job titles, news articles, blog postings, date of birth, etc. (date of birth of everyone is out there – no way to put the toothpaste back in the tube).
  • www.pretrieve.com. Provides age, relatives for free. For $1 you can get address, phone and date of birth. For $15 you can get searches on criminal and property records, and for $40 you can information about liens, aliases, marriage, divorce, bankruptcy, etc.
  • www.zoominfo.com. This site will provide professional affiliations of people.
  • www.facebook.com. It's amazing what people will put on Facebook for anyone to see.
  • www.classmates.com. Requires you to register, but you can find a lot about where people went to school.
  • www.whitepages.com. Basic phonebook information, including address and people living in the household. Also can access a reverse directory so if you have a phone number you can see who it is assigned to.
  • www.archive.org. The Wayback Machine let's you check previous versions of Web sites.
3.     Driving records
To examine the safety record of individuals or a group of drivers, such as cabbies or bus drivers. While personal driver's license information is generally not public (except for special access through contracts with commercial companies or private investigators), it is usually possible to find driving violations, such as speeding. In Arizona, look up a person's driving violations, including parking tickets, at http://www.supremestate.az.us/publicaccess/notification/defaultasp

4.     Licensing
The state monitors a variety of professionals, including barbers, beauticians, accountants, appraisers, chiropractors, nurses, Realtors, etc. See if a person is licensed or has had a license revoked. Go to
http://az.gov/webapp/portal/subtopic.jsp?id=1168&name=Business. For contractors, check at http://www.azroc.gov/clsc/AZROCLicenseQuery. For lawyers see www.martindale.com, and for doctors www.ama-assn.org/aps/amahg.htm. Also, check out an online commercial site that provides licensing information across the country, http://www.acinet.org/acinet/licensedoccupations/lois_state.asp?by=occ&nodeid=16.

5.     Property records
If your date owns a home. In Pima County, this information can be found online with a keyword search (including name), at http://www.asr.pima.gov/. More detailed paper records are at the Pima County Assessor's Office, 115 N. Church.
 
6.     School directories
If the person is a current student at a public university then you can request directory information. Sometimes it's provided online at the university Web site, or published in a phone book. Includes name, address, phone, and university e-mail.
 
7.     Voter registration
To see whether people, particularly candidates, have voted or lived in a community. Voter registration records include name, address, year of birth, party affiliation, and whether a person voted in previous election (but not how they voted). Some people can ask a judge to make their information secret if there is good cause (A.R.S. 16-153). Get these records (or the database) from the Pima County Recorder's Office: http://www.recorder.pima.gov/
 
 
 

 

Request Flow Chart:

 

Challenge the decision:

  • Apply negotiations and human strategies
  • Formally appeal; consult ombudsman, AG, or state mediator
  • Go up the chain to elected leaders
  • Enlist other organizations to write letters (e.g., SPJ)
  • Write about it; quote experts and focus on how it affects people
  • Sue

 

Know the law:

Public records laws require government agencies to provide anyone the right to look at a record (or pay for a copy) that is held by a government agency subject to the law.
  • "Record" generally includes any format of recorded material, including paper, audio tapes, video, data, e-mail, and even the electronically embedded properties information in a Word file.
  • Federal executive agencies (e.g., FBI, but not the Supreme Court or Congress) are subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act. State executive agencies, cities, school districts and other local public agencies are subject to the Arizona public records law.
  • Other laws may apply, such as the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act for protecting educational records or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act for medical records.
  • Some records may be kept secret if there is a law that says the record may be kept secret, usually to protect national security, privacy invasion, etc.
  • Usually a person can verbally request a record but some laws and agencies require a written request.
  • Agencies are required by law to respond to records requests within a certain amount of time, depending on the law. They may provide the records, deny them in whole or in part (providing a legal reason in writing), or say they need more time to fulfill the request.
  • Denials may be appealed to the agency. A requester can also sue, recouping his or her legal fees by substantially prevailing in court.
  • Federal FOIA guides:
  • The National Security Archive guide to FOIA, http://www.gwu.eduhnsarchiv/nsa/foia/foia_guide.html
  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press guide to FOIA, www.rcfp.org/fogg
  • Department of Justice FOIA guide, http://www.justice.gov/oip/foia_guide09.htm Arizona public records law guides:
  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press guide to state record laws, www.rcfp.org/ogg
  • Arizona public records ombudsman office, http://vvww.azleg.gov/ombudsman/public_records.html

  •  

Know the record:

  • Identify exactly what you want to the best of your ability. Agencies are not required to tell you anything, or give you information. They are simply required to let you see documents. Here are some tips for finding the existence of records:
  • Check the agency's Web site and see if the record is provided online. Or perhaps information is provided online about the specific record.
  • Visit or call the agency and talk to a clerk or person who would know what records are kept that would have the information you need.
  • Look for original blank forms that the agency keeps to know what kinds of information is kept and how it is kept. 
  • Look at an agency's retention schedules or records indexes to find what kinds of records are kept.   
  • Ask to see the log of public records requests to see what other people have requested.

 

Request the record:

  • Ask verbally. Ask for the record verbally in person first, if possible. Be polite but persistent.
  • Prioritize. Let the agency know if you'd like to receive information in a particular order. Materials could be reviewed and released to you in chronological or geographical order - or you may simply not want to wait for all the records to be reviewed before any are released.
  • Submit a written request. If you anticipate balking, bluffing, or being passed around or put off, simply submit a public records request letter, which starts the clock ticking and requires them to act and stop passing you around or delaying. On the following pages see a sample state public records request letter generated from the online request letter generators.
  • Choose your tone. Note the last paragraph of the request letter that threatens litigation. Threaten to sue only if you are prepared to do so and if they've indicated they will not cooperate. Also, consider whether the wording may create defensiveness or hostile undermining of your request (e.g. delays). Sometimes it's better to attract flies with honey than vinegar. But at other times, coming in strongly and quoting the law can demonstrate you are serious and know what you are talking about (research indicates the threatening letter gets more agencies to respond).
  • Follow through. After you submit a request, always follow it through to the end, especially if they provide the records, even if months after you need it. Also, if denied initially don't skulk away cowed. If you have a legal right to the information keep at it. How you treat requests and denials will effect how agencies treat requests in the future. Educate officials and get them in the habit of providing information to you and the public. It's part of their job.
  • Keep records of records. Keep track of every step of your different requests. Keep dates, contact names, phone numbers and try to correspond by email so you can have written records of what was said to whom. Some requests can last years, so keeping track of details can help.

 

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Sample request letter: Friendly version

Sept. 2, 2010
Cactus School District 450 West 6thSt.
Prickly, AZ 85364

RE: Public records request

To whom it may concern,

I know you are busy, but I want to thank you in advance for helping me gather some public records regarding superintendents and high school coaching salaries. I am writing to request a copy of the contract for the district superintendent, including pay and any other compensation he or she might receive. Also, if your district has a paid high school head football coach, or several head coaches, I would like a copy of that person (or persons') contract, including pay and any other compensation they receive for their duties.

I would be happy to pay copying and postage fees and help in any way I can, but if the cost is more than $5, please contact me and let me know. If the files are available electronically and would be more convenient to copy and email, then that would great too.

I would very much appreciate a response by the end of the month, and if there is information that I am not entitled to, please let me know. I understand that sometimes some information doesn't warrant disclosure for statutory reasons, and might need to be blotted out while releasing the public part.

If there is anything I can do to help with the request, please do not hesitate to let me know (email is the fastest way to reach me).

Thanks again for your help!

Sincerely,
 

 John Jones

1212 Main St. Needles, AZ 85745
520-555-1111
jones@email.com

 

Sample request letter: Neutral version

This letter is based on the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press online generator, available at www.rcfp.org/foialetter/index.php

Sept. 2, 2010
Cactus School District 450 West 6th St.
Prickly, AZ 85364

RE: Public records request

To whom it may concern:

Pursuant to the state open records act, I request access to and copies of the contract for the district superintendent, including pay and any other compensation he or she might receive. Also, if your district has a paid high school head football coach, or several head coaches, I would like a copy of that person (or persons') contract, including pay and any other compensation they receive for their duties.

I agree to pay reasonable duplication fees for the processing of this request.

If my request is denied in whole or part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the act.

Thank you for your assistance.

Sincerely,

John Jones
1212 Main St.
Needles, AZ 85745 520-555-1111
jones@email.com

 

Sample request letter: Legalistic threatening version

This letter is based on the Student Press Law Center letter available at www.splc.org/foiletter.asp. You might remove the threatening paragraph toward the end.

Sept. 2, 2010
Cactus School District 450 West 6th St.
Prickly, AZ 85364

RE: Public records request

To whom it may concern:

Pursuant to the state open records law, Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. Secs. 39-121 to 39-126, I write to request access to and a copy of the contract for the district superintendent, including pay and any other compensation he or she might receive. Also, if your district has a paid high school head football coach, or several head coaches, I would like a copy of that person (or persons') contract, including pay and any other compensation they receive for their duties.

If your agency does not maintain these public records, please let me know who does and include the proper custodian's name and address.

I agree to pay any reasonable copying and postage fees of not more than $5. If the cost would be greater than this amount, please notify me. Please provide a receipt indicating the charges for each document.

I would request your response within ten (10) business days.

If you choose to deny this request, please provide a written explanation for the denial including a reference to the specific statutory exemption(s) upon which you rely. Also, please provide all segregable portions of otherwise exempt material.

Please be advised that I am prepared to pursue whatever legal remedy necessary to obtain access to the requested records. I would note that willful violation of the open records law can result in the award of legal costs, including damages and reasonable attorney fees. See Ariz. Rev. Stat. Sec. 39-121.02.

Thank you for your assistance.

Sincerely,

John Jones
1212 Main St.
Needles, AZ 85745 520-555-1111
jones@email.com

 

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Overcome denials

If the agency denies your request, check with experts or the Arizona public records ombudsman to see if the agency has a right to keep the documents secret. Here are some common agency denials and how to respond:

IF THE AGENCY SAYS...

"YOUR DESCRIPTION OF THE REQUESTED DOCUMENTS IS INADEQUATE"

This means you probably did not give enough specific identifying information. Give the agency the benefit of the doubt and rewrite your request. You can try to call or make an appointment with the official processing your request to get more help.

"THE REQUESTED MATERIAL DOES NOT EXIST"

If you are reasonably certain the records you've requested do exist, and if your request letter was clear and informative, you should try to do more research. Are there news reports, congressional hearings or court records that describe the information you want more clearly? Rewrite your request, giving the agency more guidelines and clues for where they might find it. Try to be as patient and understanding as you can; some agencies are short staffed or have disorganized filing systems.

"SOME OF THE MATERIALS ARE EXEMPT FROM DISCLOSURE, SO WE WON'T GIVE YOU ANY OF THE RECORDS"

The agency can't withhold an entire document or file because some portion(s) of it is exempt from disclosure. The agency must release any non-exempt material that can be reasonably extracted from the exempt portion(s).

"WE CAN'T GIVE IT TO YOU BECAUSE AN EXEMPTION SAYS WE HAVE TO KEEP IT SECRET"

FOIA exemptions are discretionary, not mandatory - an agency is not required to withhold information. Agency officials can choose to waive the exemptions and release the material, unless another statute specifically restricts that disclosure.

"WE JUST DON'T WANT TO GIVE IT TO YOU"

The agency must explain its reasons for determining that an exemption applies to any particular information.

  • You have the right to contest any exemption claim.
  • You can file an administrative appeal to a higher agency official. And if this fails, you can file a lawsuit. The federal court must conduct a full judicial review of the agency's claims and it is up to the agency to justify its denial of your request.
  • Go up the chain and talk to the mayor, elected officials or the agency's attorney. Sometimes they will see the importance of making the information public and overrule a clerk.
  • The exemptions must be narrowly applied, since the FOIA was created to maximize public access to agency records
  • Even if the agency releases substantial portions of the material you've requested, you can appeal the decision to "sanitize" the rest. You can also request a detailed justification for each deletion.
  • While you are haggling with the agency, try to get the information from another agency. Some records are kept by multiple agencies (for example, boating accident data is kept by state agencies and the Coast Guard).

"OK, OK. HERE ARE YOUR RECORDS. THAT WILL BE $1 MILLION, PLEASE."

You might be able to narrow your request and just get copies of the materials you actually need. In any case, you should be able to view the records for free and not pay for copies. If you still need copies, discuss ways to reduce the charges. Some possibilities include asking for the information in electronic format instead of paper copies (saved to a disk for a cost of $1). You might be able to use a digital camera or portable scanner to avoid copies. Arm yourself with what other agencies charge for copies, including for computer programming time if you are seeking a database. If many other agencies charge nothing or very little, then make that known, including by writing a story about it.
  

"WE ONLY PROVIDE THIS INFORMATION TO RESEARCHERS. YOU CAN HAVE IT IF YOU SIGN THIS CONTRACT WITH US."

Some agencies give information to researchers provided they sign a contract with use restrictions, such as prohibiting identification of individuals in the records. Few journalists are willing to sign such agreements. Either it's public or not.
 
"WE DON'T KNOW WHY YOU WANT IT OR HOW YOU MIGHT USE IT. YOU MIGHT USE IT IN A WAY WE DON'T LIKE."

Tough noogies. In most states a records request can not be denied based on who the requestor is or how the information will be used (except in the case of commercial mailing lists). If they ask why you want the information you can tell them: "I wouldn't want to determine the story before I have all my facts. I'm just doing my job at gathering information." If you request records routinely from an agency (weekly), then it will be no big deal and they are less likely to question you.
 
"WE DON'T CARE WHAT YOU SAY, EVEN IF THE LAW SAYS WE HAVE TO GIVE IT OVER. YOU AREN'T GETTING IT."
 
Get help from access experts in the state and nationally. Team up with others who also might want the information. Sue.
 
 

5. Access resources
 

Arizona Ombudsman
This office started mediating access disputes in January 2007. A good way to get an impartial government person on your side to work out disputes. The ombudsman, a former attorney with the Attorney General's office, is Elizabeth Hill and she's very helpful.
 
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
This group explains how to use the national Freedom of Information Act and a nice neutral request letter generator. Also a section specifically on Arizona is at http://www.rcfp.org/ogg/index.php?op=browse&state=AZ

Arizona First Amendment Coalition
This group, comprised primarily of journalists in Arizona, advocates for open government.
 
Arizona public records audit
Findings from a statewide audit conducted in 2002, finding that law enforcement often illegally denied access to public records.
 
Arizona Reporter's Handbook on Media Law
A good summary of access in the state, along with other media law issues. Available at the student bookstore in the journalism section.
 
Society of Professional Journalists
This group provides information about freedom of information, including a blog and resources. The "Open Doors" publication has tons of document-based story ideas.
 
Citizen Access Project
This Web site out of the University of Florida provides information about access laws in each state, including a rating for whether different aspects are good or bad.
 
Student Press Law Center
This nonprofit center provides free legal assistance to student journalists. Check out the Web site for the publications and searchable database on a variety of student media law issues. It also includes a super FOIA letter generator that caters to each state.
 
National Freedom of Information Coalition
This organization coordinates coalitions in almost every state that provide information.
 

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