Regular citizens can obtain open records

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 15, 2008

The issue: Open records let the public know what their government does.

Our position: Open records are for everyone, not just journalists, and all should know how to use them.

At sometime in everybody&8217;s life, a public record is needed.

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In Alabama, that means any public writing of the state, including tax records, court records, some police records, minutes of boards, commissions and other governmental bodies.

Alabama has one of the oldest open records acts in the country. It was originally passed in 1915.

The state didn&8217;t define all the terms used, so the courts have had to weigh in. That&8217;s different from other states, where the states list details ad naseum about which records can and cannot be public.

In Alabama it&8217;s simple: Unless a state law shuts the record away, it&8217;s open for the public to view.

Most of the time, the courts have ruled on the side of openness and have placed the burden of proof on the public official that sought to withhold the public record.

This law is not just for journalists.

The law specifically states, &8220;every citizen.&8221;

There is another public law that requires public officials to provide copies of those documents on payment of fees.

And a third state law defines public records:

Alabama law provides 42 specific exemptions. Some examples include banking records, juvenile court records, hospital records produced by subpoena, probation reports unless released by the courts, identity of medicaid recipients, reports concerning suspected cases of certain diseases, tax returns and financial statements, federal grant program requires that certain records or parts of records be held in confidence.

The courts have ruled that custodians of public records have a duty to protect the integrity of public documents and can restrict access to those who seek them only for idle curiosity.

In terms of law enforcement, generally investigative reports and materials are not open to public inspection. But jail logs are public, as are traffic accident reports, names and voting precincts of registered voters on file, insurance companies doing business with a municipality, all original bids and all documents related to awarding the contracts and billing and collection records of a water and sewer board are public records. Customer home addresses, telephone numbers, social security numbers and closest living relative information is not open.

People have a right to know. Most people just don&8217;t know what they can and cannot find out about their government.

This week celebrates open records. It&8217;s called Sunshine Week.