According to the Department of Justice Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for FY 2017, almost $3 million dollars were collected in FOIA fees last year. Whether you’re new to FOIA or a seasoned vet, there’s a pretty high chance that the records you need will come at a price. Best case scenario, your charges are reasonable enough to pay out-of-pocket or your fee waiver is approved. You get the docs and you move on with life, easy! Other times, things don’t bode as well as you are forced to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in search, review, and duplication costs.
Sometimes I wish the public could see the brawls the media wage behind the scenes to get public information without having to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars. Sketchy isn't even the word for how some agencies act and we deal with this crap so the public doesn't have to.— Andrea Ball (@andreeball) August 15, 2018
Fees are the most frequent contentious point of filing in the whole FOIA process for those inside and outside of government. With strong differences between federal FOIA and state public records laws, fees can differ depending on jurisdiction guidelines.
For example, Iowa has pretty vague fee practices. The law states that each agency is in charge of its own fee charges, as long as they are “at a reasonable amount.” On the other hand, states like Montana have set laws that mandate statewide copying and search fees. Montana charges ten cents per page to copy and the first half hour of search time is free, afterwards there is an $8.50 an hour charge. Typically, agencies assess fees based on the lowest paid employee possible to do the job, but even then, sometimes that “lowest paid employee” can be a lawyer.
As an example of the differences between states, MuckRock filed a series of requests for records of sexual assault evidence collection in crime labs across the country. Despite asking for the same records in each state, the fluctuation was major - New Mexico charged $34 for documents at a rate of .25 cents per page with no additional fees for hourly labor. In contrast, Oregon charged an hourly rate of $37, leading to one bill of $1112.
(Granted, the state waived 25 percent of the bill as part of a media discount)
Adam Marshall, Knight Litigation Attorney at Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, tells MuckRock that “requesters should know the jurisdiction they are in, what type of requester they are, if that jurisdiction would allow them to file a fee waiver, and how fees are calculated.” In other words, you should arm yourself with the knowledge of your requesting state’s law. That knowledge proves pivotal when you’re dealing with a FOIA officer or agency.
Our goal at MuckRock is to help you get the records as quickly and affordable as possible. Help us with our goal by sharing your FOIA fee story! Your input will help create useful resources in tackling FOIA fees and developing strategies that all requesters can use. You can also check out our most recent Slack chat for tips from other MuckRock users.
Image via Wikimedia Commons