The Benefits of FOIA Requests for Investigators
I find that many investigators shy away from using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in their cases, thinking that the process is too complicated or time-consuming. However, FOIA requests can be an extremely valuable tool for investigators, providing a wealth of information that would otherwise be inaccessible. In this article, I'll outline the basics of filing a FOIA request and provide some tips on how to get the most out of this powerful resource.
What is a FOIA Request?
A FOIA request is a formal request for government (federal, state, city based) documents that are not publicly available. While the vast majority of government records are available to the public through various online portals, there are some records that are considered sensitive and are not released without a formal request. I have filed requests to federal agencies, local police stations and even public libraries!
How Do I File a FOIA Request?
The process for filing a FOIA request differs depending on which government agency you are requesting records from. Most agencies have an online submission form that you can fill out, although some may require you to submit your request via postal mail or email.
It's important to be as specific as possible when submitting your request, as this will help the agency locate the records you're looking for more quickly. Be sure to include any relevant keywords or case numbers, and indicate whether you prefer to receive the records electronically or via mail.
Here is a FOIA request that I submitted recently to a local police department:
Notice that I didn't use a template or include the laws and make demands. It was a professional, yet personable email. I also didn't tell the police station why I wanted the records. I very rarely share this information unless I think it will be helpful to the request.
What Happens Once I Submit a FOIA Request?
Once your FOIA request has been received by the agency, they will begin searching for any responsive records. In some cases, they may contact you if they need clarification on your request or if they require additional information from you.
Once the agency has located all responsive records, they will determine whether any of those records fall under one of the exemptions which allow them to withhold information from disclosure. If none of the responsive records fall under an exemption, the agency will release them to you in their entirety. However, if some of the responsive records do fall under an exemption, the agency may still release those records with certain information redacted.
I received a response to my request 2 days later, which is pretty quick as most responses take approximately 10 days. I got 2 reports with a good amount of information, including where the subject lived at the time and what he was driving, including his plate information. I then thanked the officer for his time. This request didn't cost me anything.
Overall, filing a Freedom of Information Act request can be a helpful way for private investigators (or anyone) to obtain information that would otherwise be inaccessible. While the process may seem daunting at first, it's actually quite simple once you know what you're doing. So don't be afraid to give it a try next time you're working on a case!