Aug. 16, 2013  

August Shine On – Monthly Chat with First Amendment Foundation

COLOR-LOGOIt’s time to shine again. Barbara Petersen with the Florida First Amendment Foundation is back! In June she addressed whether notes taken by public officials during meetings are subject to public information laws and what police are required to release during an ongoing investigation.. This month she is addressing access to car accident reports and whether or not information stored in public agency’s computers are fair game for the public.

Let us know what you could use some help with, when it comes to the Florida Sunshine Laws. You can leave questions and comments below or send them to Lynn Walsh.

SPJ South Florida: What advice or tips do you have for people when they are attempting to get crash data reports from a municipality? What if the information exists in the system, but the municipality has not run the report? What if the municipality says that stored information is “not available?” How can one still obtain the information?

Barbara Petersen: Under s. 316.066(2)(a), F.S., motor vehicle crash reports are exempt from disclosure for 60 days after the crash report is filed; on day 61, the crash reports are subject to disclosure.  However, during that initial 60 day period print and broadcast journalists can obtain a copy of the protected if the requestor provides (1) identification and proof that he/she is journalist authorized to obtain the report, and (2) a written statement stating that the information will not be used for commercial solicitation of the crash victims.

If you’re requesting simple crash data reports – statistical information, in other words, without any identifying information, you shouldn’t have to jump through the statutory hoops required by the exemption in ch. 316.

Florida courts have routinely held that information stored in a public agency’s computer is a public record subject to disclosure, which means that a municipality’s crash data reports are public record and a copy of such reports must be provided in response to a public record request.

Electronic public records are governed by the same rules as paper records – that is, the records are subject to inspection and copying unless there’s a specific statutory exemption.  Thus, the fact that the municipality “has not run the report” is immaterial, I believe.  I suggest that you first talk to the municipality’s IT department to determine the format in which the data is maintained, and then make a public record request for the entire database, or a specific subset of the data – all crash data from January – December 2012, for example – in the electronic format in which the data is maintained.  This will lessen the cost of obtaining the data and you can generally find a way to translate the data into some meaningful form.

Familiarize yourself with the statutory requirements for providing access to electronic records in ss. 119.01(2)(a) – (f), F.S.  If you need help obtaining the data, call the FAF Hotline at 800-337-3518.

SPJ South Florida: If there is an internal investigation that is ongoing at a police department, is there any information that we are still entitled to? While information can be withheld because it is ongoing, is there any information that can be released? If so, what and how is the best way to ask for it?  

Barbara Petersen: Generally speaking, active criminal intelligence and investigative information is exempt so long as the investigation is active; the phrases “criminal intelligence information” and “criminal investigative information” are defined in ss. 119.011(3)(a) and (b), F.S., respectively.

It’s very important to note, however, that these definitions refer to information collected or compiled by a criminal justice agency and not necessarily information that was created by a criminal justice agency.  And s. 119.011(3)(c) specifically states that certain information is not criminal intelligence or investigative information and will thus be subject to disclosure.

The information that is not subject to the exemption is generally that information contained in an incident report – the time, date, location, and nature of a reported crimes; the name, sex, age, and address of a person arrested or of the victim of a crime (with some exceptions); the time, date, and location of the incident and of the arrest; and the crime charge.  Also, any information required by law or agency rule to be given to the person arrested, will generally be subject to disclosure.  Finally, remember that an arrest warrant and supporting documentation will be available from the clerk of court once the warrant has been served.

The Attorney General compiles a short manual on the public records law relating specifically to law enforcement records, and I strongly encourage anyone who covers law enforcement to get a copy – I have found it very helpful and keep a copy on my desk. You can get a copy of the law enforcement guide by calling the AG’s office, 850/245-0140, or you can download a .PDF here.

Click here if you missed June’s chat.

Answers to these questions and many more, including questions about application of Florida’s open meetings law, can be found in the 2013 Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual, which is now available in both a print edition and electronically.  Go to the First Amendment Foundation website,, and click on FAF Store for information on how to order the manual.


Barbara A. Petersen, President First Amendment Foundation

Barbara Petersen headshotA graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia and Florida State University College of Law, Barbara A. Petersen is president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation.  Before taking her current position in 1995, Petersen was staff attorney for the Joint Committee on Information Technology Resources of the Florida Legislature, where she worked exclusively on public records legislation and issues.  A passionate advocate of the public’s right to oversee its government, Petersen is the author of numerous reports and articles on open government issues.  She currently sits on the board of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, having served as its president and treasurer, and was recently appointed to the Integrity Florida board of directors.  Petersen served as chair of Florida’s Commission on Open Government Reform.

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