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Managing Public Records Requests Under Iowa Law

(Questions and Answers)

In November, 2000, the Attorney General's Office sponsored training on the Public Records Law for law enforcement officials. The turnout for the ICN training was fantastic - nearly 900 people registered to attend the training session in Des Moines and at ICN sites across the state. Because the attendance was so large, we were unable to take questions that day from the ICN locations due to the risk of crashing the system. Instead, we encouraged people to forward questions to our office after the session ended.

Posted below are several of the frequently asked questions and our responses. These responses have been updated to reflect changes in the law from November, 2000, to November, 2004. Check with legal counsel before relying on these responses after November, 2004, to determine whether the statutes referenced have been amended further or whether any intervening court decisions have changed the applicable case law.

Question #1: Can a public official require a person who asks to examine a public record to identify themselves? Is an agency entitled to know who is asking for their records?

Answer: You are only entitled to require people to identify themselves under very limited circumstances. Generally, a person who requests public records is not obligated to identify themselves at all. In very few circumstances access to records is restricted by statute to certain classes of persons. For example, motor vehicle accident reports filed by a law enforcement officer under Iowa Code section 321.266 are only available to a "party to an accident, the party's insurance company or its agent, the party's attorney, or the attorney general, on written request. . . ." Iowa Code § 321.271 (2003). Under these circumstances the agency may need to inquire about the identity of the requestor in order to avoid disclosing the reports to those persons who are not authorized by statute to have access.

Question #2: Can you require a request for a copy of a public record to be put in writing and can you require the request to be specific as to which record is to be produced?

Answer: You cannot require a request for a public record to be put into writing. The Public Records Law gives the public the right to come to a government office and request records orally. On the other hand, many agencies honor requests for records that are sent in by mail for purposes of convenience. We encourage agencies to respond to those written requests without requiring the requestor to come into the office in person.

The request must reasonably describe the records requested. A request is "reasonable" if it enables the lawful custodian who is familiar with the subject matter of the request to locate the records with a reasonable amount of effort. For example, a citizen requesting the portion of a peace officer's investigative report that is public record may request information for a particular day or time, or for any number of days or times. The request is not required to specify the particular crime or incident for which the information is requested. See 1982 Op. Atty. Gen. 538.

Question #3: Are we obligated to release a police officer's car videotape that records traffic stops?

Answer: Video tapes should be treated like any other form of record. The Public Records Law defines a "public record" broadly to include "all records, documents, tape, or other information stored or preserved in any medium . . . ." Iowa Code § 22.1(3) (2003). You must consider what is on the tape to determine whether the tape is open for public examination and copying or is confidential. Like information contained in peace officers' investigative reports that are in writing, the date, time, specific location and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime or incident" must be disclosed, unless "disclosure would plainly and seriously jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the safety of an individual." Iowa Code § 22.7(5) (2003).

Question #4:When a person requests a copy of gun permit, does the requestor have a right to obtain personal information about the permit holder? Would the requestor be able to obtain the home address or unlisted telephone number of a police officer who has a gun permit?

Answer: If the home address and telephone number of the permit holder is contained on the permit form, the information must be disclosed unless it is confidential under a specific provision of law. But it is likely that this information could be kept confidential if disclosure poses safety concerns for a police officer.

The Public Records Law includes an exemption from disclosure for "[p]ersonal information in confidential personnel records of public bodies. . . ." Iowa Code § 22.7(11) (2003). The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that "personal information" includes the home address. See Clymer v. City of Cedar Rapids, 601 N.W.2d 42 (Iowa 1999). Based on this case, it is probable that "personal information" also includes an unlisted home telephone number. So if the employer of the police officer is the public official who also issues the permits, the employer can delete this "personal information" before a copy of the permit is provided.

This is true even if the information is kept on the permit form rather than filed in a confidential personnel file. See Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. V. Des Moines Register & Tribune Co., 487 N.W.2d 666 (Iowa 1992). Even if the information is not confidential under any other provision of law, the police officer could seek an injunction to prohibit disclosure of the information if the police officer could show that "examination would clearly not be in the public interest" and that "examination would substantially and irreparably injure any person or persons." Iowa Code § 22.8(1) (2003).

Question #5: What information can be obtained over the phone about a person based on their license plate number?

Answer: Disclosure of information concerning a person based on their license plate number is restricted by law. Under Iowa Code section 321.11 "personal information" requested by presentation of a registration plate number shall not be disclosed except to "an officer or employee of a law enforcement agency, an employee of a federal or state agency or political subdivision in the performance of the employee's official duties, a contract employee of the department of inspections and appeals in the conduct of an investigation, or a licensed private investigation agency or a licensed security service or a licensed employee of either. . . ." Iowa Code § 321.11(3) (2003).

But an officer or employee of a law enforcement agency "may release the name, address, and telephone number of a motor vehicle registrant to a person requesting the information by the presentation of a registration plate number if the officer or employee of the law enforcement agency believes that the release of the information is necessary in the performance of the officer's or employee's duties." Iowa Code § 321.11(3)(2003). "Personal information," in turn, is defined to include "information that identifies a person, including a person's photograph, social security number, driver's license number, name, address, telephone number, and medical or disability information, but does not include information on vehicular accidents, driving violations, and driver's status or a person's zip code." Iowa Code § 321.11(2) (2003).

Question #6: Are social security numbers confidential? If so, should the social security number on a driver's license be masked?

Answer: Social security numbers should be kept confidential in many contexts, but not when displayed on a driver's license. So there is no need to mask the number in this context. The Department of Transportation will assign a driver's license number other than the driver's social security number, unless the driver specifically requests that the social security number be assigned. Iowa Code § 321.189(2)(c) (Supp. 2003).

The confidentiality of social security numbers can present surprisingly complex legal issues. The collection and disclosure of social security numbers are governed for the most part by federal law. Federal law does not prohibit a federal, state or local government agency from requesting an individual's social security number, but federal guidelines do prescribe an informed consent process whereby individuals must be informed in advance whether the disclosure of the number is mandatory or voluntary, under what authority the number is solicited and what uses will be made of the number. Further, federal law limits confidentiality to social security numbers that are obtained or maintained by an authorized person pursuant to any provision of law enacted on or after October 1, 1990. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(c)(2)(C)(viii)(I). Because the social security numbers on a driver's license are not obtained or maintained "pursuant to any provision of law enacted on or after October 1, 1990," the social security numbers that appear on driver's licenses are not confidential. For a discussion of the law governing confidentiality of social security numbers generally, see Op. Atty. Gen. #99-10-1(L).

Question #7: Are records of substance abuse commitments confidential? Is generalized statistical information, such as the number of commitments in the past year, an open record?

Answer: Records concerning substance abuse treatment of patients are subject to both federal and state confidentiality provisions. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 290dd-2; Iowa Code § 125.33 (2003). Because the release of records concerning substance abuse are strictly controlled and can turn on compliance with very specific waiver or consent procedures, we` cannot provide a short "yes" or "no" answer to your question. You should check with legal counsel before releasing information concerning any substance abuse records, including statistical information. Remember that the Public Records Law does not require you to compile statistical information and create a record that did not previously exist. If you elect to do so, you should check with legal counsel to be sure that any statistical information you derive from confidential records is available to the public.

Question #8: When motor vehicle accident reports are filed with the Department of Transportation, the law enforcement agency retains a copy of the report of the investigating officer. Is this copy available to the public?

Answer:Law enforcement officers investigating motor vehicle accidents resulting in injury or death to any person or resulting in total property damage to the apparent extent of one thousand dollars or more must forward a written report to the Department of Transportation. Iowa Code § 321.266(1)-(3) (2003).

Iowa law specifies who can receive copies of the reports filed with the Department of Transportation by an investigating officer and who can receive copies of the report retained by a law enforcement agency of the investigating officer. The report filed with the Department of Transportation and any copy retained by the law enforcement agency of the investigating officer is available by statute only "to any party to the accident, the party's insurance company or its agent, the party's attorney, or the attorney general, on written request and the payment of a fee." Iowa Code § 321.271 (2003). Statements by participants and witnesses made to investigating law enforcement officers are protected by confidentiality in order to foster "absolute reliability"in ascertaining the facts. See Brown v. Lyon, 258 Iowa 1216, 142 N.W.2d 536 (1966).

In 2003, Iowa Code section 321.271 was amended to provide that, notwithstanding the limitation on release of the written report, "the date, time, specific location, and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime or incident shall not be kept confidential . . . except in those unusual circumstances where disclosure would plainly and seriously jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the safety of an individual." Iowa Code § 321.272(3) (Supp. 2003).

This new language parallels release of information in a peace officer's investigative report under Iowa Code section 22.7(5).

Question #9: Are warrants issued to pay the bills of public bodies public record?

Answer: Yes.

Question #10: When an investigation has been completed and a person has been charged with the crime, are the names of other persons who were suspects available for public examination?

Answer: The information in a peace officers' investigative report that must be disclosed includes only the "date, time, specific location and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime or incident." Iowa Code § 22.7(5)(2003). The immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime" includes the name of the victim, but probably does not include the names of additional suspects not charged with the crime. See 1990 Op. Atty. Gen. 85.