This is a set of links, instructions, and notes about making Data Practices Act (DPA) requests (federally known as Freedom of Information Act (FOIA))
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README.md
data-inventory-request-mn.md
dataset-request-letter-mn.md

README.md

Minnesota DPA/FOIA requests

This is a set of links, instructions, and notes about making requests for data under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act ("MGDPA"), sometimes referred to as the Data Practices Act ("DPA"). The DPA is the state-level version of the federal Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"). These types of laws are called "open government laws" or "sunshine laws" and allow individuals to request copies of or inspect government records.

Data Practices Act Basics

The DPA creates the presumption that all government data is public unless otherwise classified by state law, federal law, or temporary classification. But keep in mind — there are hundreds of exceptions in the law that classify data, and there are many grey areas not defined in statute or permissive to government agencies to make decisions about what is or is not public. The majority of potential data types can be found by browsing Chapter 13 of Minnesota Statutes.

Examples of data you can request

  • Police reports
  • Government employee salaries
  • Government contracts
  • Procedural documents
  • Government agency employee e-mails
  • Budgets, revenue, and spending data
  • Real estate licenses
  • Databases of water quality data
  • Notary applications
  • Debt collector complaints
  • Drafts of documents not yet published
  • Other people's Data Practices requests

Making a Request

Making a request is incredibly easy, but it's helpful to know the right procedures, a few pitfalls to avoid, and most importantly: your rights under the law.

Example request templates

These boilerplate request templates aren't guaranteed to work, but they've worked for us.

  • dataset-request-letter-mn.mdrequesting to inspect electronic datasets (this is themed toward technical requesters wishing to inspect government databases)
  • data-inventory-request-mn.mdrequesting to inspect a data inventory (if you're not sure what to request, you can essentially request to see a data inventory – a list of every type of data the agency maintains. The agency must prepare a data inventory under law.)

Guide to making a request

There's no requirement that the requester be a Minnesota resident or even a United States citizen. In fact, there's not even a requirement that you identify yourself beyond providing a reasonable contact method to be reached at for any questions (except when requesting data about yourself).

  1. Determine applicability of the DPA — make sure that the agency is actually subject to the DPA. All government entities in Minnesota are subject to the DPA, with a few exceptions. Agencies that are subject to the DPA include state agencies (like Mn/DOT, the Secretary of State, or the Department of Commerce), county agencies (like the Hennepin County Department of Health or Ramsey County Sheriff's Office), or city agencies (like the City of Moorhead Sanitation Division or the Minneapolis Police Department. Multi-jurisdiction agencies (like the Metropolitan Council or Metropolitan Airports Commission) and school districts (like ISD #279) are also subject. See the definition of "government entity" in statute.

    • NOT subject to the DPA:
      • The Judiciary, which includes courts and court-related entities). See section below on how to access these records. [source]
      • The Legislature. [source]
      • Certain townships. [source]
      • Non-governmental entities (like condominium associations or neighborhood groups) are NOT subject to the DPA, but if the entity is in a contractual relationship with a government entity that is subject to the DPA, some information may be public as a result.
  2. Review public access procedures — each agency is required to maintain public access procedures documents and rights of data subjects documents to help you figure out how to request to inspect or get copies of data, where you need to send that request, and how the agency typically handles requests.

  3. Draft your request — As long as your request is sent to the Responsible Authority (very important), provides a method to contact you, makes it clear that you're making the request "pursuant to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, Minn. Stat. Ch. 13," and specify the request, the agency must comply.

    • Responsible Authority — your request must be sent to this person (or their designee) to be valid. This person is listed in the public access procedures document. For cities, it's generally the City Clerk. For agencies, it's typically the director.
    • Some helpful tips:
      • Again, you don't have to identify yourself if you don't want to, unless you're the data subject requesting data about yourself. You don't need to provide your ID except in that case. But always provide contact information!
      • The DPA isn't for asking questions, it's for data. Instead of asking "how much did your agency pay BigCorp?" say "I would like to inspect all contracts, invoices, and payments relating to BigCorp."
      • Don't ask for copies; ask to inspect the data. Agencies can't charge you to inspect data. If you're inspecting data, you can bring your own equipment (e.g. a computer and scanner, or electronic equipment) to 'inspect' the documents with.
      • State clearly that you don't authorize any fees.
      • Sometimes agencies will state that you need to fill out some sort of 'data request' form. You don't have to do this! These forms might state that there are fees that don't apply to inspections.
      • You have the right to know the specific statutory exemption for any data you are denied access to inspect. So, ask preemptively! The burden is on the government agency to show why information is being withheld.
      • If you're requesting data about yourself (you're the 'data subject') the government agency must respond immediately, or if immediate compliance is not possible, within 10 days. Tell the agency in your request that you are the data subject and would like to inspect the data clearly.
      • Context matters. If you ask Driver and Vehicle Services for the owner's name of a car, you'll be denied because it's private under federal law. But, if that person is in a car crash, any data relating to the incident becomes "response for service data" and you can ask the police department for the data.
  4. Wait, but follow up frequently — the agency must respond within a reasonable amount of time, but the term 'reasonable' is not defined in statute. The reasonableness of a timely response also depends on the scope of the original request. There's no reason one file should take more than a few days to allow inspection of, but you might be lucky to be able to inspect a multi-departmental search of archives from 20 years ago within six months. Follow up frequently, but respectfully, to make sure the agency knows you're still here, not going away, and still interested in the data.

  5. Inspect the data!

Important Links

Noteable parts

  • Under Minn. Stat. § 13.025, subd. 1, an agency's Responsible Authority must maintain a data inventory which should detail the private data collected. "The responsible authority shall prepare an inventory containing the authority's name, title, address, and a description of each category of record, file, or process relating to private or confidential data on individuals maintained by the authority's government entity." Data inventories are a new requirement in 2012, so many government agencies may have not prepared them.
  • Under Minn. Stat. § 13.025, subd. 2, an agency's Responsible Authority must prepare a written data access policy and update it annually. This document must list the name of the Responsible Authority and designees, and the agency's Data Practices Compliance Official, in addition to outlining procedures that "impact the public's ability to access data."
  • Under Minn. Stat. § 13.03, subd. 3, anyone can request to inspect data (rather than request copies of it) without being required to pay. Inspection applies to visual inspection of the data, and data that is available remotely in a digital format. State law is vague and contradictory as to whether inspection applies to receiving a data file.
  • Under Minn. Stat. § 13.06, a responsible authority at a government agency can request a temporary classification from the Minnesota Commissioner of Administration, which makes it automatically non-public for up to 45 days until the Commissioner makes a determination. If the commissioner approves the temporary classification, it is only valid for one legislative cycle for the legislature to act on and codify into law.
  • Government agencies must honor standing requests for data; that is, a request that is ongoing and requires the agency to send new information to a data requestor as it becomes available. This is not codified as a specific statute, but has been found to be a requirement by the Commisioner of Administration in 2004.
  • The DPA does not apply to:

Accessing Judiciary Data

The Judiciary is exempt from the DPA, but there's still ways to access this data.

The Judiciary includes any state court (conciliation, civil, family, probate, and criminal cases captioned "X County, Xth Judicial District") the Minnesota Supreme Court, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals. This data is still public, might be online [courts, appeals], and individual county court buildings generally have clerks or vaults that allow access. Newer case filings are imaged and terminals in larger counties have access to view the images. See court rules. Fees are always involved for copies.

The federal court — United States District Court, District of Minnesota — is located in Minnesota, but not subject to the MGDPA. You can use PACER to search federal cases.

Agencies also considered judicial and not subject to the DPA: the Board of Law Examiners, the Lawyer's Professional Responsibility Board, the Board of Judicial Standards, the Lawyer's Trust Account Board, the State Law Library, the State Court Administrator's Office, the District Court Administrator's Office, and the Office of the Court Administrator [see exemption]

Case Law

  • (Case law citations needed)

Specific governments and agencies

Disclaimer

The information contained herein is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel. No attorney-client relationship is created. This information is provided "AS-IS" and without warranty. Laws and court opinions of those laws change frequently.