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How to file a Freedom of Information Act request

Who receives a request? Send requests for documents to the person in charge of the government body that has the records you want.

How specific must the request be? The law requires only that the documents requested be described with "reasonable specificity." The state Supreme Court has not clearly defined the term. But it overturned a town's decision that a request for three years' worth of traffic records was not reasonably specific.

Must requests be in writing? No. Documents may be requested orally. But you're better off doing it in writing, so you have a record of the request.

How about copying fees? You can avoid copying fees by simply asking to review documents at the agency's office. If you are asking for copies, you should remind the agency that it may only charge for the actual reproduction of the documents. It's also a good idea to find out how much the agency charges before they make you copies and send you a bill.

How long should it take? Under the law, agencies have only five working days to respond to FOIA requests. Within five days, the agency must provide the documents, advise you of when you may review them, or deny the request, stating in writing the reason for denial. An agency can provide documents before the five-day period ends. There is no provision for the time period to be extended.

What if the request is denied? Make sure that the denial is in writing, and that it cites one of the eight exemptions allowed under the law. If it doesn't, write the agency back, and ask them to cite one of the exemptions. Also, ask them to explain the "express applicability" of the exemptions they cite. You can also ask for a list of the documents that were withheld and an explanation of why the exemption applies to each one. Finally, if the documents might contain both exempt and nonexempt information, ask the agency to provide the documents with the exempt material withheld, or redacted.

Can denials be challenged in court? Yes. Any person who is denied access to records requested under FOIA may sue the denying agency in the circuit court in the county where the records are kept. Some lawyers are willing to take FOIA cases for the public because if they win, the agency that withheld the documents must pay their fees.

For help writing a W.Va. FOIA request letter, visit the Gazette's new online FOIA Letter Generator at http://wvgazette.com/foia-generator.

Source: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.


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