Washington D.C. Freedom of Information Act
What is the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows individuals to access public records and information from government agencies. Access to public records helps the public understand the operations and activities of the government. The District of Columbia Council enacted the District of Columbia (DC) Freedom of Information Act in 1976, and it became effective in 1977. The Act gives the public the right to request public records from public bodies. Public agencies are mandated by law to make requested records available for requesters' inspection or copying except for records that the Act exempts.
The DC Freedom of Information Act initially only applied to records of the DC executive branch records but in 2001, it was extended to cover records of the District of Columbia Council. Due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the Act was amended to extend the response time. However, the latest amendment in 2021 repealed the extension.
What is Covered Under the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act?
The District of Columbia Act Section 2-539 stipulates that books, maps, papers, cards, photographs, and documentary materials owned or used by public bodies are public records. Public records also include all information stored in electronic format. The DC FOIA Section 2-532(a-1) requires public agencies to provide records in any format requested, provided the requesters cover the cost of reproducing the records.
The FOIA Section, 2-536, designates the following records as public information and mandates that they are published on agencies’ websites or other electronic means without requests:
- The names, titles, salaries, and employment dates of all employees and officers of public bodies
- Final opinions of court cases
- Policy statements and interpretations of public bodies
- Administrative staff manuals, instructions, and correspondences that relate to the public
- Expenditure of public funds
- The minutes of all proceedings of public bodies
- Names and mailing addresses of owners of real properties in the district who do not reside in the properties and their agents
- Copies of all records that have been released under the Act
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in the District of Columbia?
The District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act Section 2-534 exempts the following records from disclosure to the public:
- Information specifically exempted from disclosure by law
- Trade secrets
- Commercial or financial information
- Personal information that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy if disclosed, such information include:
- Social security number
- Date of birth
- Home address
- Financial account or credit card number
- Biometric data
- Medical records
- Insurance information
- Investigatory reports compiled for law enforcement purposes
- Camera recordings by the Metropolitan Police Department relating to an incident involving domestic violence or inside a personal residence
- Records revealing the identities of confidential sources
- Test questions and answers for future examinations
- Inter-agency and intra-agency memorandums and letters
- District of Columbia response plans or vulnerability assessments to prevent acts of terrorism
- Records ordered sealed and restricted from public access by a court.
- Critical infrastructure information of companies regulated by the DC Public Service Commission
However, the Act permits the disclosure of records containing exempted portions if the exempted portions are redacted. The agency must justify the redaction in writing and indicate its extent. Public agencies are not required by the Act to spend more than eight hours of personnel time searching, reprogramming, or reformatting records.
How Do I File a District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act Request?
The DC FOIA requires that requests for records be made to the agencies responsible for the records. Requests should be directed to the head of the agency or the designated Freedom of Information Officer. Requests can be mailed, faxed, emailed, or delivered by hand. "Freedom of Information Act Request" or "FOIA Request" must be written on a mail envelope or the subject line of the mail or fax. A request must include the requester’s phone number, email address, or mailing address. The requester must give detailed information about the requested records. An agency may also follow up and ask for more information to locate the requested records.
Most of the agencies in the District of Columbia accept requests submitted through the DC Government Public FOIA portal. Requests submitted via the FOIA portal are processed faster and are easier to track. A list of FOIA officers and their contact information is available on the DC Open Government website. The DC government makes available FOIA-mandated information on the FOIA Reading Room and Open Data DC websites.
A requester can send a FOIA request to the Executive Office of the Mayor for the District of Columbia via email, mail, hand delivery, or the FOIA portal. The FOIA portal is prioritized as it provides a tracking facility for monitoring the request's status. The email address to send the request to is firstname.lastname@example.org. The address for mail and hand delivery is:
Executive Office of the Mayor
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue North West
Washington, DC 2004
Phone: (202) 724-7681
The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) for the District of Columbia accepts FOIA requests via email, mail, fax, or the FOIA portal. The email address to send the request to is email@example.com. The OAG’s FOIA officer’s contact information is:
Assistant Attorney General
Office of the Attorney General (OAG) for the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue North West, Suite 300
Washington, DC 2004
Phone: (202) 807-0363
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in the District of Columbia?
The District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act Section 2-532 requires that agencies charge fees based on the purpose of requests and the identities of requesters. The Act identifies four categories of requesters, namely:
- News media
The fees for requests made by the news media or educational and research purposes are limited to the actual cost of duplication. The fees for requests made for commercial uses should cover search, duplication, and review costs. Other requests attract searches and duplication costs. Fees can be waived or reduced if the information requested is considered primarily beneficial to the public. The requester must specifically request a waiver of fees in the request letter and state that the information is in the public interest. The requester must also state the maximum amount they can pay should the request for a waiver be denied. A requester may have to pay search and review fees even if the record was not found or is exempted by law. The agency is required to notify the requester for estimated fees higher than $25 or the requester’s stated fee.
- Record search: the first hour is free, but $16 to $40 per hour is charged for subsequent hours depending on the pay grade of the officer performing the search
- Review including redaction: the first hour is free, but $16 to $40 per hour is charged for subsequent hours depending on the pay grade of the officer who performs the review
- Document certification: $1 per document
- Photocopies: 25 cents per page
- The actual cost for all other services
The Office of the Chief Financial Officer for the District of Columbia charges the following fees for FOIA requests:
- Search: $16 - $40 per hour depending on the pay grade of the officer performing the search. No fee is charged for the first hour.
- Review including redaction: $16 - $40 per hour depending on the pay grade of the officer. No fee is charged for the first hour
- Duplication: duplications include:
- Photocopies: 25 cents per page
- Mixed media including tapes, disks, USB drives, or other media: cost of operator time ($16 -$40 per hour depending on pay grade of the officer performing the duplication) + cost of media provided.
- Scans: cost of operator time ($16 - $40 per hour depending on pay grade of the officer performing the scan) + cost of scanning documents
- Reformatting a record: cost of operator time ($16 - $40 per hour depending on pay grade of the officer) + cost of reformatting
- Document certification: $1 per document
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in the District of Columbia?
Per the DC Freedom of Information Act Section 2-532, FOIA requests must be responded to within 15 working days of receiving the requests. Requests for body-worn camera recordings must be produced within 25 working days. If the agency has to contact the requester for additional information, the time limit will begin to count from when the agency receives the additional information. The agency might request an additional ten working days to respond to a request in unusual circumstances. The record volume, the need for consultation with other agencies, and the request complexity are some factors that may cause a delay in responding to a request. An agency's response, denying a request or redacting portions of a request, must state the specific exemption authorizing the denial, the name of the official responsible for the decision, and the requester’s administrative or judicial right to appeal. If the agency does not respond within the timeframe, it is considered a denial.
The DC FOIA Section 2-537 allows a requester to appeal to the Mayor if a request is denied. The appeal must be made in writing and must include “Freedom of Information Act Appeal” or “FOIA Appeal” in the subject line and on the envelope. An appeal may be submitted via the DC Government Public FOIA portal. It may also be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to the mailing address:
Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Suite 407
Washington, DC 20004
A copy of the appeal must be sent to the FOIA officer of the agency that denied the appeal. The appeal letter must include the following:
- Statement of the reason for disclosure of the requested record
- Copy of original request
- Copy of written denial, if any
- Phone number, email address, or mailing address of the requester
The agency must respond to the appeal within five working days, and the Mayor has ten working days to provide a written determination of the appeal. The requester can institute a suit with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to compel an agency to produce a requested record if:
- The agency denies a request
- The Mayor denies an appeal
- The Mayor does not respond within the statutory time frame
- An agency refuses to release a record even though the Mayor has authorized the release of the record
- The DC Council denies a request
If the requester prevails in court, the court may award attorney fees and other litigation costs. Any person who violates the provisions of the Act is guilty of a misdemeanor and may be punished with a fine not more than $100 if convicted.