Legal Hotline: RTKL and Law Enforcement Records

Legal Hotline: RTKL and Law Enforcement Records

Q: What kind of records can we access from law enforcement agencies under the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL)?

A: The RTKL contains an exemption related to criminal investigative records, but the law guarantees public access to several specific types of records that shed light on law enforcement agency functions and personnel.

Under the RTKL, records in the possession of law enforcement agencies are presumptively public. There are several broad exemptions that law enforcement agencies can rely on to deny access including the criminal investigation and public safety exemptions, among others. However, the RTKL requires public access to several types of information including personnel information, certain criminal complaints, settlement agreements, aggregated data and financial records.

Section 708(b)(16) exempts a wide variety of criminal investigation records, but it also makes certain information expressly public. Private criminal complaints are expressly public and are typically filed with, and can be obtained from, the county district attorney. Police blotters, defined by 18 Pa.C.S. § 9102, are expressly public. A police blotter is a “chronological listing of arrests, usually documented contemporaneous with the incident, which may include, but is not limited to, the name and address of the individual charged and the alleged offenses.” The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR) has interpreted this term to include any electronic records that contain this kind of chronological information in the agency’s possession, custody or control. “Traffic reports” are also public records, although that term is not defined by law.

Section 708(b)(18) requires public access to emergency/911 time-response logs. Logs must include geographic location. Public access to response location is complicated by 35 Pa.C.S. § 5399, which imposes limits on access to 911 caller information, but at a minimum, the log must include the closest cross street, block identifier or mile marker to the response. Logs should also include date, call time, dispatch time, time of arrival on scene, release time, responding unit, the nature of the call. 911 recordings, or a transcript of a 911 recording, may be released if the agency or a court determines that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the interest in nondisclosure.

Section 708(b)(6) requires public access to certain personnel records including name, job title, salary, length of service, employment-related contracts, actual compensation paid, used/accrued leave time, and job application materials. Officer training and certification records are also public under the law. The law also requires public access to records that show demotion or termination. Note: The agency can redact from records the name of covert officers currently undercover.

Section 708(b)(17) requires public access to fully executed settlement agreements involving public agencies, including law enforcement agencies. It is also worth noting that confidentiality clauses contained in a settlement agreement with a public agency are not enforceable under Pennsylvania law. See Tribune-Review Publ’g Co. v. Westmoreland County Hous. Auth., 833 A.2d 112 (Pa. 2003).

Section 708(d) provides public access to aggregated data, defined as “data which relate to broad classes, groups or categories so that it is not possible to distinguish the properties of individuals within those classes, groups or categories.” Most of the RTKL exemptions, including the criminal investigation exemption in 708(b)(16), do not apply to aggregated data. Aggregated data about law enforcement functions, if the agency maintains it, is public under the RTKL.

Section 708(c) provides public access to financial records, and most of the RTKL exemptions do not apply to financial records showing receipt or disbursement of public funds. Law enforcement agencies must provide access to records that show how money is spent and received. Financial records are never subject to wholesale denial. Exempt information can be redacted from financial records, but the remainder of the record, including the amounts involved, must be released, and most of the exemptions in the law are inapplicable to financial records.

Note: Audio and video recordings made by law enforcement agencies are not subject to the RTKL but may be accessible under Act 22 of 2017. Requests made under Act 22 must:

  1. Be filed, in writing, within 60 days of the incident;
  2. Include the date, time and location of the incident;
  3. Include a statement describing the requester’s relationship to the incident; and
  4. If the incident took place inside a residence, identify every person present, unless unknown and not reasonably ascertainable.

The law enforcement agency has 30 days to respond, although the requester and agency can agree to additional time, and any such agreement should be in writing. The OOR provides guidance on Act 22 as well as a sample request form here.

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Please contact the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.