Florida is well-known throughout the country for its Sunshine Law, which is intended to ensure public access without unreasonable delay to public records received or created by our government. A recent Florida case looked at whether having to drive 50 miles was an unreasonable delay in obtaining some public records.
It was an appeal of a 2011 case that looked at one of Florida’s 20 state attorneys’ policy of making people travel to his Live Oak office to access public records. Did the policy cause a delay for a resident of Lake City some 25 miles away? If so, was that delay justified?
A Long Drive
In January 25, 2011, attorney Kevin Carson arranged to meet with an assistant state attorney at the Columbia County Courthouse in Lake City to pick up written statements pertaining to a case Carson was defending.
The next day, Carson arrived at the courthouse at the agreed-upon time. Once there, the ASA advised him that the case had been dismissed.
The prosecutor then claimed there was a public records policy at the State Attorney’s offices, requiring any public records to go to the state attorney office in Live Oak for his personal review, and then the records could be available for inspection only in Live Oak.
Carson submitted a public records request, and the state attorney agreed to the request within a week. However, his snail-mail letter agreeing to the request took an additional week to be delivered to Carson’s office, prompting Carson to file a records lawsuit on behalf of his client.
Carson argued the state attorney’s public record policy delayed receipt of the files and required Carson to drive a 50-mile round trip from Lake City to Live Oak to see documents that were normally housed in Lake City in the first place.
The trial court agreed and said having to drive 50 miles round trip was an unreasonable delay in obtaining access to public records, a violation of Florida statutes and Constitution. Instead, the records should have been made available at his local courthouse in Lake City.
The state attorney appealed – and won. The appeals court found that a 50-mile roundtrip to access public records was not unreasonable because Carson could have asked to have the records mailed to him.
“We reverse and conclude that [the state attorney] did not violate Florida’s public records law by making the requested records available for inspection and copying at the main office of the State Attorney for the Third Judicial Circuit, instead of at an office closer to the requester’s home.”
It seems the appeals court suspected this was a “gotcha” lawsuit designed to capitalize on a technical violation of the law. Because of the intent of Florida’s records law, public records advocates believe a violation is a violation is a violation is a violation.
The days of “gotcha” lawsuits over Florida public records violations seem to be gone. Appellate courts are more willing to impose a more permissive view of what’s reasonable when it comes to agencies complying with records requests in “gotcha” cases.
The lesson here is to stay in close contact with the agency you request records from and negotiate the quickest and least expensive way to obtain the records you want. I frequently advise clients about public records issues— how to request public records to obtain them quickly and inexpensively, and how to fight when access is denied.
Please call 904-817-2179 or email [email protected] if you have any questions about public records—obtaining them or complying with the law.