Virginia Freedom of Information Act
What is the Virginia Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) makes the records of federal agencies accessible to citizens, upon request, except for certain exemptions. Virginia's version of the federal Act is the Virginia Public Records Act (VPRA) which is codified under Section 42.1-76 et seq. of the Code of Virginia. The VPRA guarantees citizens of Virginia access to public records held by public officials, public bodies, and public employees of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The VPRA establishes a single body of law applicable to all public officers or employees, ensuring that procedures used in managing and preserving public records remain uniform throughout the commonwealth.
The VPRA was enacted on July 1, 1968, but has since undergone continuous revisions. Certain amendments modified the Act to allow for the imposition of civil fines and attorneys' fees for non-compliance or by moving the burden of proving the application of exclusions to the public body. Several other amendments, notably those pertaining to electronic meetings and records, have been made in response to technological advancements in the recording, processing, and delivery of information.
Pursuant to Section 2.2-3700 of the Code of Virginia, the Virginia Public Records Act aims to promote increased awareness and participation by all persons in government. The Virginia General Assembly has instructed that the VPRA be liberally construed to aid an increased understanding of governmental actions and afford every opportunity to citizens to observe the activities and operations of government.
What is Covered Under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act?
All public records in the custody of public agencies in Virginia are covered under the Virginia Public Records Act. A public record is any recording or writing, regardless of the form of physical characteristics, such as a paper record, electronic file, audio recording, video recording, or any other format, that is owned or prepared by, or in possession of a public body. The record may also be prepared or owned by a public body's officer, employee, or agent in the transaction of public business. All public records are deemed open and may be restricted only upon the application of a particular legislative exception.
Per Section 42.1-77 of the Code of Virginia, a public agency refers to all boards, divisions, departments, commissions, authorities, institutions, or parts thereof, of the Commonwealth of Virginia or its political subdivisions. All offices of constitutional officers are included in the definition of a public agency.
Records of any persons holding an office created by the Virginia Constitution or by an act of the Virginia General Assembly, the Governor, and all other officers of the executive branch of the state government are subject to the VPRA.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Virginia?
Certain specific categories of records are exempted from public disclosure under the Virginia Public Records Act. These exemptions are outlined in Sections 2.2.3705.1 through 3705.7 of the Code of Virginia. Common exemptions under the VPRA include:
- Personnel records under Virginia Code § 2.2-3705.1(1)
- Portions of public records containing account numbers or routing information for any debit card, credit card, or any other account with a financial institution of any individual or public body, except when requested by the subject of the record
- Information protected by the attorney-client privilege
- Legal memos and other work products compiled particularly for use in litigation or an active administrative proceeding
- Information recorded or compiled exclusively for closed-meeting use
- Portions of construction and engineering drawing and plans submitted for the sole purpose of complying with the building code or obtaining a building permit
- Working papers of the mayor or chief executive office of a locality
- Petit jury and grand jury records
- Virginia Parole Board records
- Family assessment and planning records
- Text and examination records
- State crime commission records
- Appraisals of potential land sales and purchases
- Individual, infrastructure, or telecommunications-related security records, including victim information
- Intra-agency investigations, health investigations, lottery investigations, ongoing criminal investigations, investigations by the Board of Education, and labor relations information
- Academic research and student and application records at public schools
- Health records and information on health licensing
- Financial statements and any other financial information provided voluntarily to a governmental agency
- Executive and legislative branch working papers that are still under consideration
- Library records
- Account information for utility customers
- Locations of sensitive environmental materials
- Lottery record
How Do I File a Virginia Freedom of Information Act Request?
To file a public record request in Virginia, follow these steps
Determine the custodian of the record you seek: Virginia does not have a centralized public record repository. Therefore, a request for a public record must be made to the specific agency maintaining the record.
Find the public agency's record custodian: Although you can direct your request to the agency that is the record custodian, it is recommended that you verify if the agency has designated an officer or an arm of the agency as its custodian of public records. If an officer has been designated, you should direct the request to the custodian for a prompt response. Typically, the best place to obtain contact information for the public records officer is on the agency's website. If you cannot find the custodian's contact information, you may submit requests to the agency's contact address found on the agency's website.
Prepare and submit the public record request: Many public agencies maintain their own public records request forms on their website. You may fill the forms online, where possible, or complete a downloadable request form which must be mailed to the agency's mailing address. Most agencies prefer requesters to file their requests in writing. If a requester foresees that a need may arise to enforce the provisions of the VPRA, then it is recommended that the request be completed in writing. Written requests for public records should include as much information as possible to aid the custodian in finding the requested record. Typically, a written public record request should consist of:
- Your name, address, and phone number
- An accurate description of the requested record.
- A statement requiring the custodian to provide non-exempt sections if the record contains information exempted from disclosure
- The date period for the requested record
- Any clues that may help the agency to locate the requested record.
The following are examples of filing public record requests in Virginia:
The Virginia Department of Health: Public record requests to the Virginia Department of Health may be completed by U.S. Mail, fax, e-mail, in person, or over the phone. The department recommends that the requester puts the request in writing. In the written request, identify the records you seek with reasonable specificity. Use the applicable contact information below to file your request:
Phone Number: (804) 864-7963
In-person and U.S. Mail: Tammie Smith
VDH FOIA Officer
Virginia Department of Health
109 Governor Street
Richmond, VA 23219
Online: Visit the Public Records Requests Portal
The Office of the Governor: To file a public record request with the Office of the Governor in Virginia, contact the office by telephone at (804) 786-2211 or by fax at (804) 786-3985. Email requests must be made to FOIA@governor.virginia.gov with the phrase "FOIA Request" included in the email's subject line. If you choose to complete your request by mail, send your request to:
Office of the Governor
Patrick Henry Building
1111 East Broad Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Virginia?
Pursuant to Section 2.2-3704.F of the Code of Virginia, a public agency is permitted to impose a fair charge not exceeding the actual cost incurred in accessing, copying, supplying, or searching for the requested record. No intermediary or extraneous fees may be charged to cover the general costs related to creating or maintaining records or transacting the public agency's business. All fees for providing requested records must be calculated in advance at the citizen's request. If the public body finds in advance that the search and copying expenses will likely exceed $200.00, the public body may request the citizen to make a deposit not to exceed the amount prior to completing the request.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Virginia?
Per Section 2.2-3704.B of the Code of Virginia, public entities are required to respond to public record requests within 5 working days. Permissible responses which may be given to requesters within the 5-day period include:
- The requested record cannot be disclosed. This kind of response includes a written explanation stating why the record is unavailable and referring to the specific code provisions in support of the denial. The statement will also identify with reasonable specificity the volume and subject matter of the records withheld.
- The requested record is being provided in part. This response will also include a written explanation of why certain portions are exempt from disclosure and specify with reasonable specificity the withheld portions, naming the statutes supporting the exemption.
- The requested record does not exist or could not be found.
- It is impossible to provide or determine whether the requested record will be available within 5 working days. Hence, according to Section 2.2-3704.B.4 of the Code of Virginia, the custodian of the record may take an additional 7 days to provide one of the three responses mentioned above. Note that the record custodian must have provided an initial response within the 5 working days of the requirement of additional time to respond to the requester.
Pursuant to Section 2.2-3713.A of the Code of Virginia, persons who have been denied access to public records may enforce the Act's provisions by filing a suit at the general district court or the circuit court. The suit must be brought in the city or county where the public body was elected or appointed and where the deprivation of rights occurred.