The California Supreme Court ruled that government officials are required to search personal devices and accounts for documents related to government business and disclose that information when a Public Records Act request is made.
In City of San Jose v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County, an individual requested documents related to government activity located in a government official’s personal email account with a Public Records Act request. The request also included emails and text messages from the official’s private cell phone. The City denied the request as to the private email accounts and cell phones as traditionally privately maintained accounts and devices were not subject to Public Records Act requests.
The Court summarized the issue as “Are writings concerning the conduct of public business beyond CPRA‟s reach merely because they were sent or received using a nongovernmental account?” Considering the intent of the Public Records Act, the court determined that allowing a government official to conduct government business using private accounts and devices would essentially create an exception to the Public Records Act.
The Court found that documents containing “information relating to the conduct of the public’s business” is subject to the Act even if maintained on an officials private account or device.
The law, like the Public Records Act, is slowly catching up to the popularity of personal electronic devices. As such, the Court here essentially ruled that the intent of the Public Records Act to ensure openness in government prevents officials from preventing the disclosure of government information by using personal accounts and devices.
This case also serves as a valuable reminder of the public’s broad power to request information from government agencies. Therefore, government employees should take special care when using personal accounts and devices for government purposes.