AZ Justice Courts Charging Hefty Fee to Simply Look at Public Documents

Earlier this week, a New Times reporter was shocked when a clerk at Justice Court charged her $24 to view a court file.

Under Arizona's public records law, isn't access to public records free?

Not always. The file requested by the New Times reporter would have taken the clerk two minutes to retrieve -- as would the second file the reporter wanted to peruse. That'll be $48, please. (And not only for reporters - for you, too, John Q. Public.)

Even the woman fielding requests from the Justice Courts Public Information Office (the normal officer was on vacation) wasn't sure if the fees are legal.

Apparently, the charge was perfectly legit, according to Dan Barr, a media attorney at Perkins Coie in Phoenix. He says that justice courts won the right to charge $24 to "research or locate" a document 10 years ago even if the requested file is on the clerk's desk.

"I'm as outraged as anyone else about this," he says, "but it's legal."

What's not-so-legal is for most Arizona Police Departments to charge a flat $10 fee for a copy of a police report, even if it's only two pages.

**This post has been corrected for accuracy: The files the New Times reporter requested were recent, not 10 years old.

"No one can charge a flat fee," says Barr. "The fee has to be reasonable. If you're being charged $10 for a piece of paper, that's something else."

Here's what the law does generally allow for: Any person (regardless of citizenship) can go into a public records office and request to inspect public records for free. Agencies can charge a nominal fee about 20-25 cents per page to photocopy docs. But charging a finders fee? Definitely not.

Liz Hill, a public-access officer with the Arizona Ombudsman's Office, says it's pretty common for other governmental departments to "mistakenly" charge people to see documents that should be free. She blames over-protective public records officers who do not really understand public records laws.

"It's becoming a big problem," she says.