Alabama Freedom of Information Act
What is the Alabama Freedom of Information Act?
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that permits citizens to partially or fully access records in the custody of the government but not in the public domain. The FOIA ensures transparency and makes it easier to access public records to the extent consistent with the public interest and the record subjects’ privacy rights. The Freedom of Information Act in Alabama is referred to as the Alabama Public Records Law. It was initially enacted in 1923. The law provides that every citizen has the right to check and make copies of any public writing of Alabama unless the records are exempted by the law. Citizens requesting records of public agencies must make their requests directly to the agencies in question. For instance, a person seeking to obtain public records from the Alabama Secretary of State must submit their request to the Secretary of State's office.
There was no change to Alabama’s Public Records Law until 1983. In 1983, the Alabama Legislature added a provision preventing public access to the registration and circulation records of public colleges, public schools, and university libraries. In 2004, under Alabama Code § 36-12-40, the law was amended again. The amendment led to the exemption of records that threaten the security or safety of persons, structures, facilities, or other infrastructures from public records. It also exempted records whose disclosure may be detrimental to public safety or welfare and the public's best interests. Examples of such documents are records concerning security plans, procedures, assessments, and measures or systems. If a public officer receives a request for a record that may appear to jeopardize the safety or privacy rights of the record subject, the public officer may notify them of the request in writing. The public officer will allow the record’s subject to comment on the request and the threats to public safety or welfare that may arise from public disclosure on the records. In addition, the amendment to Alabama’s Public Records Law permits a parent of a minor child to review the registration and circulation records of the child’s school or public library.
What is Covered Under the Alabama Freedom of Information Act?
The Alabama Freedom of Information Act (Public Records Law) covers public records as defined by the Code of Alabama section 41-13-1. The law defines public records as all written, typed, or printed books, documents, letters, papers, and maps made or received under the law by the state’s public officers. It also includes all forms of records made or received under the law by counties, municipalities, and other sections of government in the transactions of public business. Other records covered are:
- Public records authorized to be made by any Alabama law regarding or belonging to any court of record; or
- Public records authorized by law or any exhibit, paper, pleading, or other writing filed in, with, or by any such court, officer, or office
The following records are within the scope of the Public Records Law and are granted public access:
- Actuarial tables used to calculate teacher retirement benefits
- Arrest reports
- Municipal internal audit reports
- A preliminary report prepared at the request of a state university regarding the alleged misconduct of one of its employees
- Resumes and employment applications
- Alabama court records
- Alabama vehicle license tag records
- Well-bound books containing jail dockets
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Alabama?
Certain records are exempt from the Public Records Law mainly due to the sensitivity of the records and to protect the privacy rights of the persons involved. Other times, records are removed from public access because they may jeopardize public safety and security. The records that are exempt from the Public Records Law are in two categories:
- Registration and circulation records and information regarding the use of public schools, or colleges and university libraries
- Records whose disclosure may be detrimental to public safety or welfare. These records include documents regarding procedures, security plans, measures, assessments, or systems, and any records impacting the security or safety of persons, facilities, structures, or other infrastructures.
Records from specific sectors and entities are statutorily exempt from public access, some of which include:
- Agriculture - Investigative reports of the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture (except by court order), records of sales, receipts, and deliveries of seeds sold in Alabama. Records regarding auditing by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, etc.
- Attorneys and Judges - Records regarding client security fund, attorney-client communications, records, and files of certifying agencies regarding lawyers certified or seeking certification (except as directed by the board)
- Banking/Finance - Records regarding bank examinations, bank acquisitions, securities and exchange commission, etc.
- Computer Services - Data gathered, stored, processed, or circulated through the utilization of the supercomputer system; computer-based court information maintained by the Administrative Office of Courts (sealed, exempted, or restricted records by rule or law, except by court order; such as personnel matters, juvenile matters, adoption matters, mental proceeding matters, etc.), etc.
- Courts - Civil court mediation, juror lists, master juror box, grand juror, etc.
- Criminal Procedure - Records derived from criminal procedures such as unexecuted search warrants, 911 recordings, presentence reports, diagnostic evaluation reports, etc.
- Motor Vehicles and Traffic - Records on vehicle accidents, tolls, ridesharing applications, and records derived from determining whether an individual meets the physical, medical, or mental standards to be licensed as a driver
- Juveniles - Records on adoption, childcare, education of exceptional children, juvenile law enforcement, victims of sexual abuse or exploitation under age 18, parental consent to performing an abortion, child custody, and support proceedings
- Library Services - Records regarding public library use by an individual
- Disabled Persons - Information collected by interpreters for a deaf person, attorney-client privilege, unless the speech/hearing defective person permits such information to be disclosed.
- Energy Department - Details of a proprietary nature and abstracts of proposals for energy-related grants addressed to the department for coordination and information.
Other entities that have some of their records exempted from public access include:
- Workers' Compensation
- Real Estate Appraisers
- Public Welfare
- Navigation and Vessels
- Mining, Insurance
- Horse and Greyhound Racing
- Health Care
- Fire Marshal
- Domestic Abuse
How Do I File an Alabama Freedom of Information Act Request?
According to the Code of Alabama 1975, section 36-12-40, which authorizes citizens to inspect and make copies of any public records in the state, requesters can direct their FOIA requests to the Alabama Secretary of State. The Secretary of State maintains most public records and makes them available electronically via its official website, but not all records are electronically available. Individuals can contact the access officer to such records and inquire about policies or documents at Hugh.Evans2@sos.alabama.gov or (334) 353-7857. The Secretary of State will make public records available during regular office hours between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm. Individuals can also inspect public records in the Secretary of State's office but must not eat, drink, or smoke in areas where such records are being inspected and copied. A citizen looking to obtain a copy of a public record may complete the Public Information Request Fillable form, print, and mail it together with the required fees to:
Public Records Request
Office of Secretary of State
P.O. Box 5616
Montgomery, AL 36103-5616
Requesters may also complete the form on the Request Public Information section of the Alabama Secretary of State’s website. Citizens searching for certain corporation records from 1949 - 2010 may visit the Alabama Department of Archives and History website.
To expedite the process of getting a public record in Alabama, a citizen may send a request directly to the record custodian in charge of the record. For example, citizens can get vital records from the Alabama Center for Health Statistics or their county health department. Some other records are primarily controlled by other entities such as:
- Alabama Judicial System and courts for court records
- Alabama Sheriff’s Offices for arrest records, jail records, criminal records, police reports, etc.
- Alabama Probate Offices for probate records
- Alabama Property Tax Commissioner for tax information
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Alabama?
The Code of Alabama 1975 section 36-14-3 recommends a standard fee that the Office of Secretary of State is expected to charge for record requests. There is a $1 fee per page for public records and a $1.50 fee for the annexation of the state seal. The Office of Secretary of State will charge a requester an extra $5 fee for a certificate and the annexation of the state seal.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Alabama?
The law does not prescribe any defined processing time for public record requests in Alabama. However, government agencies are generally required to respond to public record requests within 20 days from when they received the requests, although they are not mandated to deliver the records within the 20-day period. Typically, the length of time to wait before a request is processed varies depending on the method of request, including online, mail, fax, or in-person. Generally, an in-person request and an online request take a shorter time to process. An online record request can be delivered in minutes, depending on the agency, while a mail request will take a longer time to process. Other factors that influence processing times are the circumstances surrounding each request, such as the complexity of the request and the volume of records requested. An agency may respond with a denial of access if the request cannot be granted. A requester who has experienced an elongated or persistent delay may do any of the following:
- Publicize the public record request and the delay or denial as part of an editorial, regular news coverage, or letter to the editor.
- Hire an attorney to contact the agency's attorney to negotiate the delay or denial request
- Enlighten the agency, directly or through its attorney, by providing copies of case laws, governing statutes, and Alabama attorney general opinions.
- Remind the agency, directly or through the agency’s attorney, that attorneys' fee awards can be made against the uncooperative agency in some cases.