Maryland Freedom of Information Act
What is the Maryland Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law promoting the openness of government activities. The FOIA allows members of the public to access records of the government, except those that are exempt from disclosure. The Maryland Public Information Act was enacted as Chapter 698 of the Laws of Maryland in 1970 with a similar purpose to the federal Freedom of Information Act. The purpose of the Maryland Public Information Act is to enable members of the public to have access to records maintained by the state and local government agencies without unnecessary costs and delays. The Act includes exemptions that protect public interests and the private information of citizens. Record custodians are obliged to provide these records when requested, except they fall within any of the stated exemptions. The Act covers all public agencies in the state, including the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive arms of the government. Other agencies covered are the county administrations, city administrations, school districts, tax-supported districts, commissions, and councils.
A recent amendment to the Maryland Public Information Act is House Bill 974, which took effect in January 2018. The bill expanded the definition of personal information and modified the definition of a security system breach. It also regulated the procedure for the investigation of data breaches and how the owners of the information are notified in the case of data breaches.
What is Covered Under the Maryland Freedom of Information Act?
The scope of the Maryland Public Information Act covers the operation of all public agencies or public officials in the state. This includes the operations of the legislative, judiciary, and executive branches of the state government and local governments. Local governments covered by the Public Information Act include all counties, cities, towns, districts, school districts, and incorporated towns. The judiciary in Maryland has also adopted its own Rules for Access to Judicial Records. These rules cover records maintained by judicial agencies, judicial personnel, and special judicial units.
The scope of the Maryland Public Information Act also covers all public records in the state. According to the Maryland Code, General Provision §4–101(k), a public record is defined as original or duplicate copies of any documentary materials made by a government agent in the course of official duties. Public records in Maryland may be in any form, such as cards, correspondence, drawings, films or microfilms, forms, maps, photographs or photostats, tapes, recordings, and CDs/DVDs. Some other forms are police mugshots, printed and electronically stored versions of emails, and tape records of calls to 911 Emergency Telephone System Centers. However, certain portions of the tape recording generated during official businesses may fall within certain exemptions to public disclosure.
Public records in Maryland also include documents that list the salaries of employees of the government or their political subdivisions. However, Maryland does not classify digital photographic images, the signatures of people, or the actual stored data of the images or signatures of individuals recorded by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration as public records.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Maryland?
The right to access public records in Maryland is limited by a number of exemptions. Certain records are exempt from the Maryland Public Information Act to prevent an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of individuals. The exemptions to public records disclosure in Maryland are as follows:
- According to §4–301(a) of the Maryland General Provision, a record custodian shall deny the inspection of a public record if:
- The public record is classified by law as a privileged or confidential information
- The inspection of the public record would imply working contrary to:
- A state statute
- A federal statute or a regulation issued under a federal statute that has the force of law
- The rules adopted by the Court of Appeals
- An order of a court
- According to the Maryland Code General Provision §4–305, a record custodian shall deny the inspection of public records containing details about the adoption of an individual.
- According to the Maryland Code General Provision §4–306, a record custodian shall not allow the inspection of hospital records relating to:
- Medical administration and their staff
- Medical care
- Other medical information
- Maryland Code General Provision §4–306 also states that a record custodian shall not allow the inspection of records that contain general or specific information about individuals.
- According to the Maryland Code General Provision §4–307, a record custodian shall not allow the inspection of records containing information about the welfare of individuals.
- According to the Maryland Code General Provision §4–308(a), a record custodian shall prohibit the inspection, use, or disclosure of a public library's circulation records. They shall also prohibit the inspection, use, or disclosure of any other item, or collection of information about individuals that:
- Are maintained by a library
- Contains the names of individuals or their identifying numbers, symbols, or other identifying particulars of individuals
- According to the Maryland Code General Provision §4–309, a record custodian shall prohibit the inspection of library materials, archival materials, or museum materials donated by anyone if the donors limit information disclosure as a condition of the gifts.
- According to the Maryland Code General Provision §4–310, record custodians shall prohibit the inspection of letters of reference.
- According to the Maryland Code General Provision §4–311, a record custodian shall not allow the inspection of individuals' personnel records. These include applications, performance ratings, or information about individuals' academic achievements.
- According to the Maryland Code General Provision §4–312, a record custodian shall not allow the inspection of the record unless the requester is:
- The registrant to the record
- A person appointed by the registrant
- A beneficiary, personal representative, or other persons who have valid claims to the benefits of the registrant, only after the death of the registrant
- A law enforcement agent
- According to the Maryland Code General Provision §4–313, a record custodian shall not allow the inspection of the records of a school district that pertains to:
- The home address of persons
- The home telephone number of persons
- Academic achievement
- The physical and mental ability of students
However, a record custodian shall permit the school district registrant to inspect their records. Elected or appointed officials who supervise students, and the organization of parents, students, former students, teachers may also view the school district's records.
How Do I File a Maryland Freedom of Information Act Request?
According to the Maryland General Provision §4–202(a), a person may request a public record by presenting a written application to the applicable record custodian. However, a requester may not need to submit a written application if:
- The requester is seeking to inspect a public record listed by an official custodian available to any applicant immediately on request
- The official record custodian maintaining the record waives the requirement for a written application
A requester can find the contact details of the custodian of the record they seek to obtain by checking the list of record custodians and PIA representatives in Maryland. The Maryland General Provision, §4–202(c) states that if a FOIA request is submitted to an individual who is not the record custodian in a public agency, the person shall notify the requester within ten working days. The written notification shall include the name and location of the actual record custodian of the requested record.
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Maryland?
The fees for FOIA requests in Maryland are generally limited to standard charges for direct document searches, reviews, and duplications. According to the Maryland Code, General Provision §4–206(c), a record custodian is not required to charge fees for the first two hours needed to search and prepare a public record for inspection. The estimated cost of the search and preparation of a record for inspection is determined by the salary of the person searching for the record and the actual time required for the search. The record custodian may also charge for the cost of providing facilities for the reproduction of the requested record if the office does not have the required facilities. An agency may charge a flat fee for a particular document type, such as an accident report, each page, or each CD of a specific document. The flat fee charged is expected to cover the search and reproduction of the document. However, according to the Maryland Code, General Provision §4–206(e), a record custodian may waive the fee for a record search if:
- The requester is indigent and requests a fee waiver
- The requester requests a waiver, and the record custodian is convinced that the waiver would be in public interest
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Maryland?
Maryland Code, General Provision §4–203(a) states that a record custodian shall promptly grant or deny a public record request. The response to the requester must not exceed 30 days after they received the public record request. If a record custodian in Maryland perceives that they will need more than 10 working days to produce a requested public record, they must notify the applicant by email within 10 days of receiving the application. In addition, they are required to inform the applicant of:
- The reason for the delay
- The estimate of the fees to be charged for the production of the public record requested
- The aggregate time it will take them to produce the copies of the public records requested
If the requested record is unclear, the record custodian shall notify the requester by email within ten days. When the requester provides the needed clarification about the record, the record custodian shall provide the document within 30 days of the initial application.
In case of a PIA request denial or a disagreement with a fee assessment in Maryland, an applicant may either seek:
- A Judicial Review: This involves filing a suit in a Circuit Court to order the production of the record requested; or
- An Administrative Review: This may be done by contacting the Public Access Ombudsman, or the State Public Information Act Compliance Board to complain about the denial and seek review.