Mar 12, 2024 - News

How to request public records in Florida

Illustration of a sun-shaped magnifying glass.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

We're smack in the middle of Sunshine Week, a Florida-based homage to public records.

Why it matters: Records kept by the government β€” everything from police reports to construction permits to text messages between city council members β€” are important tools for holding public officials accountable and better understanding your community.

  • That's especially true in Florida, which has the broadest public records laws in the country.

State of play: While a group of journalists created Sunshine Week, public records laws aren't just for us. They're for you, too.

Here's a practical guide for how to request public records in Florida:

First things first: Chapter 119 in Florida law is your public records bible. It goes over what information you're entitled to, how to request it and how and when a government should respond.

  • It also lists details that are exempt from public disclosure, such as Social Security numbers and identifying information for a victim of child abuse.
  • If you find the statute hard to digest, there's also the Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual, updated annually, which explains the statutes and also incorporates court rulings that have resolved debates about how to apply them.

Between the lines: The GOP-controlled Legislature, Gov. Ron DeSantis and former governor (now U.S. Senator) Rick Scott have taken steps over the last decade to erode Chapter 119, but it remains a powerful tool.

Zoom in: Many records are already available for free online! A few examples:

  • Find out who owns that house down the street through your county property appraiser's website.
  • Look up a court case or records such as deeds, marriage licenses and tax liens on your county clerk of court's website. Criminal and civil case records are under the "court records" tab. Everything else falls under "official records."
  • County sheriff's offices have websites that show who's in jail and what charges they're booked under, as does the state prison system.
  • And here are tools to look up business incorporations, medical and medical facility licenses and state political campaign finances.

Yes, but: If what you're looking for isn't readily available, there are a few ways to request info from an agency.

  • A number of governments have started funneling requests through online records portals and/or have public records pages on their websites with instructions on where to send your request.
  • But the law doesn't require you to use those portals. It also doesn't require you to fill out a form or even to make your request in writing (though it's generally wise to do so).

When writing your request:

  • Be as specific as possible.
  • Include your desired timeline to receive the records.
  • Say up front that any redactions must be backed up, in writing, with the applicable Chapter 119 exemption.
  • Ask for an estimate of the cost, if any, before the agency begins working on your request.

Follow the money: Custodians can charge "reasonable" service fees for voluminous requests or records that have to be reviewed and redacted for sensitive information.

  • If the initial quote seems high, ask for a cost breakdown and see if you can narrow your request.
  • Pro tip: Ask for the records to be released electronically. Agencies can charge a per-page fee for physical copies.

Fun fact: You can also show up at an agency and ask to inspect and make copies of the records you're looking for.

  • You may get pushback (the Tampa Fire Department recently went so far as to call police on a reporter who asked for records in person) but Chapter 119.07 lays out the process for in-person inspection.

No matter which route you take, be polite but persistent! Check in periodically on how the request is going.

More resources, tips and inspiration are available via the First Amendment Foundation, the Brechner Center for the Advancement of the First Amendment and the Sunshine Week website.

πŸ“¬ And you can always shoot us an email at [email protected].

avatar

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Tampa Bay.

🌱

Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Tampa Bay stories

No stories could be found

Tampa Baypostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Tampa Bay.

🌱

Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more