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Superior Court Rules CPRA Requires Disclosure of Private Emails and Text Messages

A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled this week that the California Public Records Act (“the Act”) requires City officials to turn over private emails and texts messages related to City business.  

The decision, although not binding in other jurisdictions, sends a strong message that attitudes may be changing on exactly what amounts to a “public record” requiring disclosure under the Act.  The ruling requires emails, voicemails, and text messages sent and received on the private electronic devices of San Jose City officials to be disclosed-if the messages relate to City business.  The case, Smith v. City of San Jose, et al. (Case No. 1-09-CV-150427), stems from an individual’s 2009 request to the City of San Jose for records related to a redevelopment project.  

Advocates for disclosure argue that unless these records are available, public officials could conduct nearly all public agency business on private devices and essentially behind closed doors.  Others, such as the California League of Cities, argue that disclosure of electronic communications from private devices is impractical because the public agency has no control over such records.  

Privacy concerns are also at issue here, as these records could be intermingled with communications which do not relate to public agency business.  Under the Act, “public records” are defined as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.”  Gov. Code § 6252(e).  The Smith Court reasoned that there “is nothing in the PRA that explicitly excludes individual officials from the definition of ‘public agency'” and therefore the requested records are prepared, owned, used, or retained by the agency.  It is the content-not the location-of a record which determines whether it is a public record, the Court explained.  

It is possible that the City of San Jose will appeal the ruling, in which case a 6th District Court of Appeal decision may not come for a year or more.