Alabama, USA

Alabama Public Records Guide

Alabama Public Records (PR)

2006 Alabama Code - Section 36-12-40

Enacted in 1923, Updated in 2004

Alabama Public Records Law, like most states’ laws, can be vague and at times difficult to pin down. There is no language in the bill which states how long the state has to respond to a request. In terms of fees, some have been expressly stipulated by law, other documents are left up to the specified custodian to decide how much to charge for. While the law states that any citizen can file a request, it is not specified what one must be a citizen of, and in some cases this is used to deny a request as they can argue that one must be a citizen of Alabama. Search fees are typically waived, however for certain departments like the Department of Corrections there is a flat $25 fee for them to begin to process a request. Furthermore, agencies don’t need to have a designated records custodian and no ombudsman exists here, so there are few places one can go to have an advocate for their request.

Exemptions in Alabama can also be tricky to navigate. While there are no branches of government or government offices that are specified as being exempt, records of public schools, universities or colleges, and libraries are. Alabama also has a fairly open ended exemption relating to documents concerning public safety and security. Depending on what you’re interested in, these exemptions can make the Alabama Public Records Law (APRL) challenging to deal with, particularly when requesting certain kinds of information.

It is also important to note Alabama has no appeals process for a denied records request. This makes civil action the only other recourse for someone wishing to challenge the state’s ruling, which can be expensive and time consuming. For these reasons, requesting open records in Alabama can be a very difficult task, making it all the more important a requester knows APRL well before engaging in the process.

The Law

  • The Alabama Public Records Law does not have an established response time they must comply with, only saying they will process a request when appropriate fees have been received.
  • Applies to all governmental branches and offices but not to records of public or state university libraries, records that deal with security systems, measures or other records dealing with the safety and security of citizens, and also exempted of course are any records deemed confidential or “nonpublic” by the state.
  • Residents and non-residents may submit requests.
  • There is no set appeals process for Public Records Law in Alabama.

Supplemental

Alabama record retention schedule

The Details

Can you submit a request if you’re not a resident?

Yes, if one is a citizen of the United States they can request public records. However, due to the language of the law not specifying where one must be a citizen from, Alabama can deny a request because they are not an Alabama citizen. This is a rare occurrence.

To whom does this apply?

Executive?

Yes.

Legislative?

Yes.

Judicial?

Yes.

Is there a designated records custodian?

No, Alabama law does not allow for a records custodian or ombudsman.

Who is exempted?

While no governmental branches or bodies are explicitly exempted in the code, Alabama does reserve the right to classify certain records as confidential or “nonpublic” as well as a list of exemptions. (1) “registration and circulation records and information concerning the use of the public, public school or college and university libraries of this state”; and (2) “records concerning security plans, procedures, assessments, measures, or systems, and any other records relating to, or having an impact upon, the security or safety of persons, structures, facilities, or other infrastructures . . . the public disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to be detrimental to the public safety or welfare.” Ala. Code § 36-12-40 (Supp. 2005).

How can requests be submitted?

In-person?

Yes.

Verbally?

Yes.

By mail?

Yes.

By email?

Yes.

Expect to wait a little bit.

Alabama has no language in its public records code that specifies how long they have to comply with your request. Although there is precedence for filing suit to prove that a long enough wait time is a denial-of-request, wait times for public records can be lengthy in Alabama. This is especially so with no designated records custodian, and no language forcing them to expedite the process.

Does the agency have to give you a tracking number or estimated date of completion?

No.

Can they ask why you ask?

No.

Enforcement?

Due to there being no designated records custodian in the Public Records Law of Alabama, and there being no language in the law itself outlining enforcement of the law, enforcement is spotty at best and the requester has to be his own enforcer in many ways. Part of the Alabama code on tampering with governmental records can be read to apply to the Public Records Law. A person commits the crime of tampering with governmental records if; (1) “He knowingly makes a false entry in or falsely alters any governmental record; or (2) Knowing he lacks the authority to do so, he intentionally destroys, mutilates, conceals, removes or otherwise substantially impairs the verity or availability of any governmental record; or (3) Knowing he lacks the authority to retain a governmental record he refuses to deliver up the record in his possession upon proper request of a person lawfully entitled to receive such record for examination or other purposes.” Ala. Code § 13A-10-12(a) (1994). This is punishable with a one year jail sentence, however the Attorney General does not have power to enforce the Public Records Law himself. Any citizen or media source that wishes to self-enforce this law must do so in court by filing a civil action.

Fees?

The Attorney General’s office in Alabama has historically stated the following opinion regarding fees; “If possible, a public agency should provide free copies of public records. However, if budgetary constraints prevent this, then a public agency may charge a nominal fee, if necessary, to cover its costs in providing copies of public records. One may inspect public records without paying a fee unless a substantial amount of an employee’s time is required.” (http://www.ago.alabama.gov/opinions/pdf/2009-076.pdf)

In practice, this isn’t always the case. Search fees can only be charged if a substantial amount of an employee’s time is required in searching according to the Attorney General. Duplication fees run the following:

Criminal justice records not more than $25 Appellate records $5 for one to ten pages and $0.50 per page for than ten Public safety records not more than $15 Each individual driving record is $5.75 All other records are up to the specific custodian to decide on an appropriate fee.

Are there fee waivers for media requests or those made in the public interest?

No. Unless the requester is from a governmental agency, there are no fee waivers in Alabama for public records.

Attorney’s fees - Can you win them?

No.

Exemptions and Appeals

What exemptions exist?

All records for public libraries, schools, and universities are exempt as well as records concerning citizen’s safety and security. See above for a more complete breakdown of exemptions.

Do they have to tell you why a portion or pages were redacted or withheld?

Yes, they need to be able to cite why your request was denied, or why a portion was redacted or withheld.

No appeals.

There are no appeals for a Public Records decision in the State of Alabama. Instead a civil action must be filed in order to potentially free the record.

Resources

Organizations

The following organizations offer resources for those seeking public records in Alabama.

Alabama Center for Open Government

Attorney’s and law firms

The following attorneys and law firms have practiced public records law. Names marked with an asterisk have indicated a willingness to offer pro bono services on a case by case basis.

There are currently no experienced public records law attorneys that we know of in Alabama. Write to us at info@MuckRock.com if you know of any and want to help us out!

Successful appeals

News Stories on Public Records Laws in the State

Department of Corrections $25 search fee

Have a good story on Utah public records laws? Let us know

Submit a new link

Blogs and feeds primarily focused on public records in Massachusetts

Public Records Guide and Advice

Newsletters

Let us know

Big FOIA wins

Have a public records success story? Let us know!

Stats

Request Record
689 Filed
169 Completed
36 Rejected
52 No Responsive Documents
172 Awaiting Acknowledgement
13 Awaiting Response
17 Requiring Action
Appeals
None
Allowed Response Time
No limit
Average Response Time
94 days
Success Rate
24.24%
Average Fee
$59648.80
2.76% of requests have a fee

Top Agencies See All

Agency Requests Pages Released
Alabama Department of Corrections 21 43
Birmingham Police Department 21 4
Alabama Department of Public Safety 19 1
Office of the Attorney General 13 12
Montgomery Police Department 12 2
Office of the Attorney General - Alabama 10 12
Office of the Governor 9 0
Calhoun County Sheriff's Department 8 0
Huntsville Police Department 7 224
Tuscaloosa Police Department 7 2

Top Localities See All

Jurisdiction Requests Pages Released
Birmingham, AL 31 36
Huntsville, AL 15 264
Montgomery, AL 14 21
Tuscaloosa, AL 11 390
Anniston, AL 11 9
Mobile, AL 10 29
Gadsden, AL 7 58
Rainsville, AL 7 8
Jefferson County, AL 6 7
Baldwin County, AL 5 1