Police stop a person. A dispute ensues. The person is injured by the police. As recent tragedies in our country have shown, the police dash cam video can be a more trustworthy account of what happened then subsequently-written police reports. Counsel for the person stopped wants to obtain the video as well as written police records.
A city or a town raises the valuation of a home or business immensely, which results in a significant tax increase. The owner wants to challenge the increase. Counsel for the owner wants to obtain the government’s file justifying the increase in valuation.
Under both of these widely different scenarios, the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law allows the requested records to be discovered. This is a detailed law, set forth at 65 P.S. §§ 67.101-67.3104. Under this law, a public record and other documents are accessible for duplication. Any record in the possession of a Commonwealth agency or local agency is presumed to be a public record, unless it fits within specific exceptions. The burden of proving that the record fits within an exception is on the agency.
Once a request for the record is made, the agency must respond within five business days or the request is deemed denied. The general practice is that the agency requests a 30 day extension. If the agency denies the request, or if the deadline passes with no agency response so it is deemed denied, an appeal may be taken to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records in Harrisburg. The only tricky part about the appeal is that it must be taken within 15 days of the denial or deemed denial, so counsel must keep a close watch on the agency’s deadlines for response. In one case, the agency did not bother to respond within the initial five days, so the 15 day appeal deadline started right away. If the Office of Open Records denies the appeal, the next step for an appeal from a decision of a local agency, such as a Police department or City, is to appeal to the local court of common pleas.
A section of the law worth remembering is that if the court reverses the final determination of the appeal officer, the court may award reasonable attorney fees and costs if the court finds the original local agency acted willfully, wantonly or in bad faith. On the other hand, the court may award reasonable attorney fees and costs if the court finds the legal challenge was frivolous.
The Right to Know Law is a very useful tool for parties wishing to challenge a wide array of governmental actions. Locks Law Firm has experience pursuing relief under this law, and we stand ready to help you.