The California Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that government agencies can't charge the public for the cost of deleting confidential information from electronic records, such as videos and emails, sought under the state's Public Records Act.
The court said the law allows agencies to charge only for the cost of copying records and not for the cost of removing confidential material such as personal medical information and law enforcement strategies.
Justice Leondra Kruger wrote that otherwise, the cost of requesting electronic public records could be prohibitive and would be contrary to the California Constitution's guarantee of a right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business.
The state Constitution "favors an interpretation that avoids erecting such substantial financial barriers to access," Kruger said.
The panel ruled in a case in which the National Lawyers Guild's San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, citing the Public Records Act, obtained DVDs from the city of Hayward of body camera footage from police officers who aided Berkeley police during a demonstration in 2014.
The demonstration was held in Berkeley in December 2014 to protest police involvement in the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
The court said Hayward was entitled to charge $1 for each DVD but not $3,246 for staff time in deleting confidential information from about seven hours of videos of the footage.
The Public Records Act of 1968 provides that agencies can charge members of the public for the cost of duplicating paper records but not for redacting, or removing, information.
When the law was amended in 2000 to refer to electronic records, it said agencies could charge for the costs of needed "data compilation, extraction, or programming." Hayward contended that deleting the confidential information was a form of data extraction.
But the court said that phrase refers to retrieving data from a complex database and "does not cover the process of redacting exempt material from otherwise disclosable electronic records."
David Snyder, the executive director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition, said, "This decision is great news for government transparency and accountability.
"It will prevent government from erecting significant cost barriers to public access, thus ensuring the public gets the information they're entitled to under California law," Snyder said in a statement.
The state high court overturned a decision in which a state appeals court ruled in favor of Hayward in 2018.