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LEGAL MATTERS: RI’s New Open Records Law

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

 

Changes to RI's public records laws give you more access than before, but what does that really mean?

The Rhode Island open records law, or Access to Public Records Act (APRA), has, up to now, been somewhat restrictive in certain areas. Recent legislative changes, however, should help citizens gain greater access to records.

With a few exceptions, you may request the right to review and/or have copies of any records a public agency possesses. Records include everything from electronically kept records to photographs to written documents to sound recordings. You can obtain them in “any and all media in which the public agency is capable of providing them.”

Note, however, that if the data is not compiled or organized as you request it, the agency is not under any obligation to compile it in that form. Unless, the data/records are computerized and the agency “would not be unduly burdened in providing such data.”

What it may cost

If you request copies, the public body can charge you no more than .15 cents per page and can’t charge you more than a reasonable cost to provide electronic records. They can also charge you up to $15 per hour to search and/or retrieve the documents, but the first hour must be free. Under the law they must provide the documents in a reasonable time and must give you an estimate BEFORE you get the copies. If you don’t want copies you are still entitled to review the records.

The government agency has 10 days to comply with your request. If the agency is planning to deny your request, they must inform you in writing within those 10 days and notify you of your appeal rights.
There are a number of areas that fall outside public records, such as records that disclose medical information, credit card numbers, student performance, trade secrets, correspondence between constituents and government officials or labor negotiations. And, even so, if the information that violates the disclosure can be redacted, the agency must still turn over the document in redacted form.

Personal information: what you're entitled to

The good news is that under legislation sponsored by Rep. Michael Marcello and recently signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, personally identifiable records are no longer automatically considered off limits. Now, there is a balancing test that bars disclosure only if it is considered an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The new law also allows you to request records without revealing your identity. And, as under the old statute, it doesn’t matter why you are requesting it – records CANNOT be withheld based on the reason you are seeking the records. 

The foregoing is offered for informational purposes only and is not legal advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.

Susan G. Pegden is a litigation associate with the Law Firm of Hamel, Waxler, Allen & Collins in Providence.  She is admitted to practice in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Rhode Island Association of Justice (RIAJ) and a member of the Rhode Island Women’s Bar Association.

Sean P. Feeney is a partner with the Law Firm of Hamel, Waxler, Allen & Collins. He is admitted to practice in Rhode Island, Illinois and Wisconsin. Mr. Feeney is a former special counsel to the City of Providence, military prosecutor with the United States Marine Corps and Special Assistant United States Attorney for the Central District of California.

 

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