The high propensity for news in Florida to spread like wildfire and generate a plethora of memes on the internet is based on the state public record laws. Like all states, Florida has sunshine laws that allow interested members of the public to request and inspect records created by public agencies and their employees. Although far from perfect, the open record law in Florida is one of the strongest and broadest in the country, according to a CNN report.
For over a century, Florida has maintained that all government business is the public’s business – to the point of obduracy. Thus, records of public affairs, even those on individuals, must be available to the public as far as a government agency is the creator and custodian of such records. Of course, privacy laws, as well as laws on national security, make provisions for the exception of a few documents or information; public records are not at the beck and call of every requester. Established protocols make physical access to public records available requesters even as the government is committed to increasing access to records viz-a-viz electronic repositories.
Arrest records are arguably the most accessible public records in the Sunshine state – the major contributing factor to the abundance of the Florida Man news. Local law enforcement creates these records as part of the more comprehensive criminal history record. The distinction between these two records is that arrest records do not provide definitive proof of conviction or guilt. Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is the central repository for criminal records. The FDLE allows instant access to the criminal history of any resident on its website. In addition to providing the necessary information to search, the requester will have to pay a $24 search fee and processing fees.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Corrections is the official custodian of records on incarcerated offenders. Interested members of the public may remotely access inmate information at no charge. By using the name of the offender to query the database, you will have access to the offender’s most-recent photograph, personal information, and prison sentence history within state jurisdiction.
Indeed, information accessed on the websites of the aforementioned agencies does not give a complete picture of the circumstances surrounding a crime. For example, the Department of Corrections works with Florida Courts to speed up updates to inmate information from court records. Florida Courts maintain records of criminal and civil litigations that happen within state jurisdiction. Thus, court records are unarguably the best resources to build a complete picture of the circumstances surrounding a crime or civil suit. To find court records of interest, you must visit the office of the Clerk of Courts where the case was filed (use court locator). At the court, you will have access to court transcripts, as well as copies of exhibits, depositions, motions orders, correspondence, and briefs.
Of course, for in-person visits, you must schedule your visit during business hours and provide court staff with the necessary information to identify and retrieve the record. It is helpful to know the names of the parties involved, date of filing, case number, docket number, or the name of the presiding judge. With the advent of electronic storage of records, Florida counties and cities maintain online repositories of court records. For obvious reasons, online repositories are attractive because they allow requesters to access court records from the repose of their homes or offices. The official website of the court, e.g., for Palm Beach, is the premier choice for accessing court records but independent repositories also make the search faster and simpler.
Arrest records, inmate records, and court records are not the only public records of interest in Florida. Vital records, which the Florida Department of Health maintains, are also available – restricted to eligible requesters. Vital records are official documents on life events that occur within the state, i.e., births, deaths, marriages, and divorces. The local departments of health process requests from the individuals named on the record, their surviving immediate family members, or legal designees. Find a county health department to begin the process of requesting a vital record in Florida. Bear in mind that you will have to complete an application form, cover the cost of reproducing a record, and provide a government-issued photo I.D. before officials may release a vital record to you.
For all public record requests, you must pay attention to three cardinal things.
First, you must provide the necessary information to facilitate the record search. Furthermore, you may incur civil or criminal liabilities for the inappropriate use of the information obtained. Even though Florida does not restrict the use of public records, a person may incur liability for malicious misuse. Lastly, where a record is sealed by statute, court order, or exempt from public disclosure, you may bypass such restrictions if armed with a court order.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State is the custodian of government records, and interested members of the public may submit a public record request to access the state public records, especially record of historic, administrative, or fiscal value.
Besides the agencies we have discussed, you can request public records from any government agency in Florida. While the Sunshine laws do not require you to make your request in writing, provide identification, or justification for a request, doing these is a professional courtesy that gives credence to your request. It may also fast track your public records request because the administrative staff of public agencies deals with frivolous requests every day. The Florida First Amendment organization provides practical tips to accomplish your objectives.
In conclusion, for the better part of a century, Florida’s public record law has been the bellwether of government transparency in the United States, but it is far from perfect. There are reports of record custodians stifling public record requests, causing the press to seek relief in courts. For instance, in Florida Today v. Sheriff Department, the Sheriff Department declined to release the Gregory Edwards jail video, citing security concerns. Likewise, the state legislature continues to introduce sporadic restrictions: a 2015 State Integrity Report revealed over 1000 specific restricted government records. That is a lot considering that as of 2001, Florida had only 450 statutory exemptions. Yet, the Florida public record law remains expansive enough to accommodate inquiries from the press and members of the public.