State Supreme Court Rules in PRA Case
The California Supreme Court issued a much-awaited decision today in a case revolving around the definition of public records. The crux of the case was to determine if emails about public business sent via elected officials private devices are still defined as “public records.”
The Court’s ruling—available here—indicates that such emails are indeed public records, but the ruling also offers some important privacy safeguards for elected officials and other public employees who may occasionally use their private email devices for public business.
“This decision is very much along the lines of what we argued in our amicus brief,” said CSAC Litigation Counsel Jennifer Henning. “The Court, not surprisingly, decided that records concerning public business that are on private devices are nevertheless subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act. We did not disagree with that in our brief. But the Court did what we asked it to do and provided guidance to local agencies about how to conduct these searches.”
The discussion of that issue starts on page 18 of the ruling. The guidance mirrors the argument presented in the CSAC Amicus brief — that public employees have privacy rights and should not be required that they turn over their phones to public agency employees to be searched. Instead, the Court offered that it is generally sufficient for the public agency to ask employees to search their own phones and turn over any responsive documents.
“This is precisely the argument we made,” said Henning. “It preserves the public’s right to know the public’s business, but also makes clear that counties will not be found in violation of the Public Records Act so long as a reasonable search for records is conducted, which does not include intrusively going through a person’s private device.”