North Carolina Freedom of Information Act
What is the North Carolina Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that gives a person the right to obtain access to government records, provided they are not prohibited from public disclosure. It plays an essential role in keeping the government accountable to its citizens and ensures transparency in all public business transactions.
The North Carolina FOIA is known as the Public Records Law. It is contained in Chapter 132 of the North Carolina General Statutes and permits public access to public records/documents held by government agencies. The law describes records generated and compiled by the North Carolina government agencies as the people's property, giving them the right of access. Under the North Carolina Public Records Law, a person need not state the motive for requesting a public record. There are also no limitations on using any record/information obtained from a public body. North Carolina government agencies subject to the Open Records Law include every state or local public institution, public office, bureau, board, and council. Others are commissions, departments, public officials, and other political subdivisions of government.
North Carolina passed its first open records law in 1935, and the primary purpose was to preserve public records. In 1975, the law had a significant amendment that extended its provisions to permit computerized records and other unconventional forms of storing and retrieving data. The 1995 modification, in Section 132-1(b) of the law, pronounced North Carolina public records as people's property. The most recent notable amendments to the Public Records Law addressed the timing of responding to public record requests and the cost of copying records.
What is Covered Under the North Carolina Freedom of Information Act?
The North Carolina Open Records Law covers all non-exempt public records/information held by all public bodies in the state. Per Section 132-1 of the Public Records Law, public records are all documents in any physical form created or received by government agencies in the course of lawful duties. They include books, photographs, papers, letters, artifacts, films, sound recordings, magnetic tapes, electronic records, and other documentary materials. These documents are covered by the North Carolina Public Records Law and accessible to the public.
Records of the North Carolina State executive branch as well as those of the judicial branch are subject to the Public Records Law. While most records of the state legislature are covered, a separate law permits legislatures to keep their requests to the legislative staff for drafting assistance or information confidential.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in North Carolina?
Sections 132-1.1, 132-1.2, and 132-1.4 of the North Carolina Public Records Law provide a broad category of records not subject to the state's FOIA. These categories are confidential legal communications, confidential information, and criminal investigations records/intelligence information. The state exempts these records in a bid to prevent unnecessary invasion of people’s privacy, ensure state security, and protect the public interests. Generally, the following records are exempt from the North Carolina Public Records Law:
- State and local tax information containing taxpayers' income or receipts
- Telephone numbers and addresses of program participants in the Address Confidentiality Program established under Chapter 15C of the state's General Statutes.
- Records maintained by any community college containing applicants' personally identifiable admissions information.
- Billing information collected and maintained by a local or other public utility company concerning the ownership or operation of a public firm, save airports.
- Written communications to any government agency, made within the scope of the attorney-client relationship by any legal practitioner serving any such agency concerning any claim against the agency for which it acts
- Information maintained in the state's Controlled Substances Reporting System established under Article 5E, Chapter 90 of the North Carolina General Statutes
- Any confidential information generated and maintained by the state's Division of Employment Security
- Proprietary computer code written by and for the benefits of any public agency in North Carolina
- Public security and emergency response plans
- Account number in an electronic payment
- Document, password, file number, or any other information maintained by the Secretary of State
- Any information that constitutes a trade secret or that property of a private person
- A record that reveals driver's license number, date of birth, electronically captured image of a person's signature, or a part of a person's social security number
- A record containing the name, qualification, address, and other identifying information of any individual who prepares, manufactures, dispenses, or supplies drugs obtained for any purpose approved by Article 19, Chapter 15 of the General Statutes.
- Records of criminal investigations and criminal intelligence information executed and compiled by public law enforcement, unless by order of a court of competent jurisdiction
How Do I File a North Carolina Freedom of Information Act Request?
The North Carolina Public Records Law does not contain specific procedures or provide a form for filing FOIA requests. Typically, the agency from which a person intends to obtain a public record will determine the request method. Generally, requesters will either be required to file their Public Records Law requests by email, mail, in writing or online. However, a person must first ascertain the agency in possession of their record of interest and find the contact information of the record custodian. A North Carolina FOIA request must provide the details of the document being sought to enable the custodian to locate it quickly. Public agencies or record custodians cannot create or compile a public record that does not exist to fulfill a request. Where a public record contains confidential information, an agency may redact the confidential portions.
An individual seeking a public record under the North Carolina Public Records Law must address their request to the relevant agency in charge and in a method the agency accepts. Generally, each public agency in North Carolina provides a physical or mailing address where interested persons can submit their Public Records Law requests. If in doubt of where to send a request, find it from the list of North Carolina agencies provided on the state's government official website.
For instance, a requester can electronically submit a public record request form to request copies of public records held by the North Carolina Judicial Branch. They may also print the completed form and mail it to:
North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts
Public Records Request
P.O. Box 2448
Raleigh, NC 27602
Also, to file a public record request with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, address the request to the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the related division by mail to:
North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
Attn: (Name of the PIO for the related division)
217 West Jones Street
Raleigh, NC 27603
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in North Carolina?
According to Section 132-6.2 of the North Carolina Public Records Law, government agencies may charge fees for making copies of public records available to requesters but cannot charge for inspection. Except as otherwise provided by law, no government agency must charge a requester for an uncertified copy of a public record more than the exact cost of reproducing it. However, they may charge fees for giving out certified copies of public records. Typically, most public agencies in North Carolina determine and will notify requesters of the estimated costs of producing copies of public records before reproducing them. For instance, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts charges requesters a paltry 25 cents fee per page for paper copies of public records. In many cases, some agencies provide public records via email at no cost to requesters.
If the need arises, a government agency may charge public record requesters a special service fee in addition to the actual copying cost. Such situations usually require extensive supervisory assistance by the agency personnel. Where producing a record involves using information technology resources beyond the agency's established means of reproducing the volume of information requested, the special service charge also applies. However, such a charge must be reasonable and based on the actual costs of labor by the agency personnel or the extensive use of information technology resources. It is usually based on the hourly rate of the lowest-paid employee who provides such service.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in North Carolina?
The North Carolina Public Records Law provisions do not specify a time frame for public agencies to respond to public record requests. According to Section 132-6.2 of the Public Records Law, a government agency must make copies of public records available to requesters as promptly as possible. A public agency will notify a requester in writing as soon as reasonably practicable and explain reasons for denying a request.
Section 132-9 of the Public Records Law permits anyone who is denied access to copies of a public record to apply to the appropriate division of the General Court of Justice. They can seek an order from the court compelling copying or disclosure of such a record. However, if the court determines that the requester's application for disclosure was frivolous, it will assess an appropriate attorney's fees against the requester.