How to make FOIA requests in Virginia

-----Original Message-----
From: Philip Van Cleave
Sent: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 1:11 PM
Subject: VA-ALERT: VCDL Update 10/21/08

How to make FOIA requests in Virginia

Sometimes, permit holders have interactions with law enforcement that
could have gone better. Protection of citizens' rights often hinge on
what law enforcement knew and when they knew it, and how information
was transmitted and possibly changed along the way. A powerful tool
in the hands of citizens is the right to request information from our
government via the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Here is how
you can do it.

Virginia like many states has a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),
codified at Va. Code Section 2.2-3700 et seq. You can read it online at

The law provides that all records held by the state government are
open to public inspection unless the agency can cite a law allowing
them to deny you access. You can be charged reasonable fees for the
agency to find the records (memos, papers, emails, recordings,
drawings, etc.) and copy them for you. But remember that no agency
must create a record for you.

As a practical matter, agencies don't want you in their offices
looking through their files, so most will just copy and mail/email you
records you request - they have 5 working days to respond to you, and
if they violate the FOIA, you can sue them to force them to comply and
if you prevail, court's usually award you your attorney's fees. Just
ask EM Mike Stollenwerk who sued Mayor Wilder (and former Virginia
Governor) of Richmond a few years ago for refusing to respond to his
FOIAs over alleged city polices against gun carry at festivals -
Mike's attorney got paid almost $3,000 by Richmond.

Under FOIA, any citizen of Virginia may make a FOIA request. There is
no format required - it can be verbal, or written, or by email. The
easiest way to make this requests is a short and clear email to then
highest official of the target agency likely to be in a position to
make things happen for you on your FOIA request (e.g., Chief of
Police, City Manager, County Executive, Mayor, etc.). Take the time
to keep it simple, business like, and short - nobody likes to read
long messages that beat around the bush. Sometimes it's helpful to
give some brief context, but not if it is a complicated story.

Here is an example for format purposes:




Dear Mayor Big Wig:

This is a FOIA request for records (including emails, 911 recordings,
etc.) held by SmallTown pertaining to the dispatching of police to the
SmallTown park on Saturday, October 11, 2008 at approximately 4 PM,
and/or any record of a SmallTown policy banning gun carry at town parks.

I was at the park at the time referenced above walking to my car with
my kids after feeding the ducks at the lake and 2 police cruisers and
some town employees approached me. The police got out and told me it
was good I was leaving because I was carrying a holstered handgun in
violation of park rules. After some brief discussion, the police
acknowledged that I broke no law but informed me that there was a
SmallTown policy that gun carry was not allowed and that if I had
refused to leave, I could be charged with trespassing.

Please respond within 5 days as required by the FOIA, unless you
expect the cost to me for these records to exceed $20, in which case,
notify me of the estimated cost of this request prior to any
production of records. Delivery of these records to me by way of
Email is acceptable to me if convenient for you.


Gun Owner
101 Main St.
SmallTown, VA 22399
(703) 555-2345