FAQ About The Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA)

If you’ve heard about FOIA but don’t know what it is, let me give you a quick rundown. FOIA is a set of laws that gives you the right to request records from any federal agency. Under this act, federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested unless it falls under one of the nine exemptions.

These exemptions protect interest such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

FOIA also requires agencies to proactively post certain records and information online. One of these required posts is frequently requested records. So, before you decide to request something from an agency, it’s better to search for the records first.

Not only does this route save you a ton of time, but it can also save you some cash.

In the event you can’t find what you’re looking for online, here’s everything you need to know about requesting records under FOIA.

 

What Can I Request?

A FOIA request can be made for any agency record. You can also specify the format that you want to receive the records in. For example, printed or PDF form.

This law does not require agencies to create new records, conduct research, analyze data, or answer questions when responding to requests. So, if you receive your data and you still have questions, they don’t actually have to answer them.

But sometimes they will make new records or answer questions if they’re equipped to do so. But if they do, be prepared to pay for their time. And, again, by law they don’t need to do any of that.

 

What Are Some Records I Can Request?

There are currently over 100 agencies that are subject to the FOIA requirements. Of course, we can’t list all of them in this article, but you can find the full list here.

Some of the below topics have some overlap and some have multiple agencies that handle these programs. Again, you can request information or records from any of these – but don’t expect reports to include personal information.

  • Government-funded benefits; food stamps, healthcare, social security benefits, school lunch, student loans, etc.
  • Children and education; abuse and neglect hotlines, runaway hotlines, child support, children’s education, etc.
  • Products and safety; cable TV complaints, consumer complaints, foodborne illness, unsafe vehicles, etc.
  • Fraud, Law Enforcement, & Crime; arson, bombs, or firearms, asset forfeiture, homeland security, identity theft, etc.
  • Government officials; congressional, federal, state, local, and judicial contacts.
  • Health; blood donation facilities, genomics, infectious diseases, vaccine reactions, etc.
  • Home, Community, & Work; affordable housing, census reports, discriminatory mortgage lending, housing benefits, etc.
  • Military & Veterans; military branch contacts, training information, department of veteran affairs, etc.
  • Money & Business; antitrust info, bank complaints, investors, IRS, etc.
  • Travel & transportation; Amtrak, aviation, consumer complaints involving vehicles, passports, etc.

You can request things like basic information, procedures, budgets, records, statistics, or anything else not covered by an exception law. But, again, if they’re not tracking the statistics of what you’re looking for, you may have to request multiple records and do the math yourself.

 

How Can I Request Things Under The Freedom Of Information Act?

Since there’s no central FOIA office for the 100+ federal agencies, you’ll have to determine which agency has the records you’re looking for.

Once you do that, you need to locate the FOIA office for that agency. Many agencies have this information available online, but some you may need to contact them to ask who to contact.

Unfortunately, given the scope of how many federal agencies there are, I can’t be more specific about where you’ll find an agency’s FOIA office. But the official FOIA agency search should help you determine the office’s contact information as well as any additional requirements that office may have.

Once you locate the office, your request must be in writing (electronic or hand-written) and reasonably describe the records you want. Most federal agencies accept FOIA requests electronically, but not all.

Your request will be processed faster if you address the FOIA office directly. Otherwise, your request may have to hit a few desks before it lands on the correct one and begins the process.

 

What Happens After I Make A FOIA Request?

After an agency receives your FOIA request, you’ll usually receive a letter confirming they’ve received your request.

If the agency requires additional information, they’ll contact you with whatever additional information they need. If they didn’t request anything from you, it’s just a waiting game.

Once they confirm they’ve received your request, they’ll start working on it. Of course, they have to see if the records exist first. Once they find them, they’ll review the records to determine what parts can be released.

They’ll redact, blackout, or otherwise hide any information protected from disclosure. Then the records will be released to you after you pay the agency. Payment isn’t always applicable but often is.

 

How Much Does A FOIA Request Cost?

There are no fees required to submit a request, but the FOIA does allow charging of certain types of fees.

For a typical request, the agency can charge for the time it takes to search for and duplicate those records. But there’s usually no charge for the first 2 hours of search time or for the first 100 pages of duplication.

You may include a limit to the amount that you’re willing to pay when submitting your FOIA request.

If the agency estimates the fees will exceed your request, they’ll notify you in writing of the estimate and offer you an opportunity to narrow request in order to reduce your fees.

 

I Only Have To Pay If They Find The Records, Right?

If you agree to pay the fees for the record search, you may still have to pay even if they don’t locate the records you wanted. This is true for particularly complex or obscure record searches.

For example, if you’re requesting data on something they don’t directly track, they may have to pull several records to see if it’s possible to give you all the records you’d need to calculate the numbers yourself.

 

Can The FOIA Fee Be Waived?

Yes. But not usually.

FOIA fee waivers are limited to situations when the requester can show the disclosure of the requested information is in the public’s best interest. Usually, because it will help “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operational activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interests of the requester.”

So, essentially you have to make a case for the greater good of the public in order to get your fees waived. Again, if you limit the information you’re requesting, you won’t have to pay anything in most cases.

And – before you ask – an inability to pay does not constitute as a legal basis for a fee waiver under FOIA.

 

How Long Does It Take To Receive Records Under FOIA?

The time it takes respond requests will vary depending on the complexity, the backlog of requests, and the workload the agency is experiencing.

A simple request is usually faster than a complex one.

Under certain conditions, you may be entitled to have your request processed on an expedited basis. There are two situations where your request can be handled ASAP.

First, a request will be expedited if “a lack of expedited treatment could reasonably be expected to pose a threat to someone’s life or safety.” In laymen’s; a delay in the records could result in harm.

Second, if there is “an urgency to inform the public about actual or alleged federal government activity, if made by a person who is primarily engaged in disseminating information.” This doesn’t usually apply to the general public and is more a reporter, lawsuit lawyer, or whistleblower thing.

Agencies can also establish additional standards for granting expedition processes. If they have them in place, you’ll find them under the agency’s FOIA section.

So, in short: there’s no set timetable for when you’ll get your records.

 

What Are The Requirements To Obtain Records On Myself?

If you’re looking to get records about you, you’ll be required to provide a certification of your identity. This is to protect your privacy.

Obviously, you don’t want just anyone to get access to your information.

Whenever you request information about yourself, you’ll be asked to provide a notarized statement or a statement signed under penalty of perjury. This statement says you are the person you claim to be… lest you be thrown in jail for a while and pay serious fines.

As long as you are who you say you are, you should have no problem getting your records.

 

What Do I Need To Obtain Someone Else’s Records?

When requesting information about another person, you’ll receive greater access by submitting authorization from the person.

Similar to the statement above, this statement should allow the agency to disclose its records to you. Or – if that’s not possible – you can gain access by submitting proof that the individual is deceased.

In either case, if the disclosure of the records could invade that person’s privacy, the records won’t be released under normal circumstances.

Which may be a pickle if you need those records. But it’s great because that means your creepy ex and nosey neighbor can’t go poking around for information about you.

 

What Is Exempt Or Excluded?

Congress established nine exemptions from disclosure. This protects invasions of personal privacy, harm to law enforcement investigations, personal safety, and a host of other legal concerns.

The FOIA authorizes agencies to withhold any information when the agency can “reasonably perceive that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of these nine exemptions.”

The nine exemptions are information that’s:

  • Classified to protect national security
  • Related solely to the internal practices of an agency for agency use
  • Prohibited from disclosure by another federal agency – even if it’s not the one you’re requesting information from
  • Considered trade secrets, commercial or financial information, or confidential information that is privileged by law
  • Communication-based, either with or between agencies and privileged communication
  • Personal and would invade someone’s privacy
  • Compiled for law enforcement purposes and the release could interfere with privacy, justice, or the law
  • Based on the supervision of financial institutions
  • Geological information on wells

 

If you’re hung up on what “privileged” means in a legal context, here are some resources that might help narrow down what you can and can’t request;

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