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The Texas Public Information Act

Other Court Basics

This article discusses Texas’ Public Information Act (PIA), which gives you the right to access certain state government records that are public information.

What is the Texas Public Information Act?

The Public Information Act is a law that gives individuals access to inspect or copy government records. The law also details the specific instances when a governmental body can withhold government records from the public. Texas Government Code Chapter 552.

Any individual, not just Texas citizens, can make requests for public information through the Act.

The Act requires a governmental body to respond and release the information requested by an individual. If the governmental body determines the information requested may not have to be released under the Act, then both the request and information at issue must be reviewed by the Open Records Division (ORD). The ORD will then decide whether the governmental body can withhold the requested information or must release the information to the requestor.

What governmental bodies are covered under the PIA?

The Public Information Act applies to all Texas governmental bodies created by Texas’ executive or legislative branches. This includes all boards, commissions, and committees. Texas Government Code 552.003.

The Act may also apply to a governmental body that is supported by or that spends public funds. Private organizations that keep records for governmental bodies also are covered. 

Private businesses and individuals are not covered under the Act. This is true even if they provide services or supply goods through a government contract.

What types of “records” are public information under the PIA?

Public information refers to information collected, assembled, produced, or maintained in connection with transacting public business. It may be on paper, film, media, or electronic communications such as emails, internet postings, text messages, or instant messages. Texas Government Code 552.002.

You can find examples of public information here

What information is not covered under the Public Information Act?

The following list includes the most common records that are not covered under the Act. These records are often discussed as part of family law cases. Speak to a family law attorney if you need access to these records for your case.

  1. Education Records and Student Records. Education and student records of an educational agency or institution are not required to be released, except with permission under The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. This federal law is often called “FERPA.” Texas Government Code 552.026 and Texas Government Code 552.114.
  2. Personnel Records. If the release of information in a personnel file would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, it does not have to be released. Texas Government Code 552.102.
  3. Real Estate Deals. Information can be withheld relating to the location and appraisals or purchase price of real or personal property. Texas Government Code 552.105.
  4. Certain legal matters involving attorney-client privilege. This includes information that the attorney general or an attorney of a political subdivision is prohibited from disclosing because of a duty under the Texas Rules of Evidence or the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. This may also apply if a court order has prohibited disclosure of the information. Texas Government Code 552.107. 

    This may be important if your child support case is with the Office of the Attorney General.
  5. Birth and death records. A birth or death record maintained by the vital statistics unit of the Department of State Health Services or a local registration office does not have to be released. There are exceptions for some situations. Texas Government Code 552.115.
  6. Crime Victim Records. Information about adult and child victims of certain criminal offenses is not permitted to be released. Texas Government Code 552.1315.
  7. Family Violence Shelter Center, Victims of Trafficking Shelter Center, and Sexual Assault Program Information. Information that relates to the location or physical layout of a family violence shelter center or victims of trafficking shelter center is confidential. Texas Government Code 552.138. Read more about family violence here.

Find the list of other statutory exceptions here.

A governmental body does not have to respond to a PIA request from an incarcerated individual or an agent of that individual unless the request is from the incarcerated person’s lawyer. Texas Government Code 552.028.

What is “confidential” information?

Some public information is confidential by law. Confidential information is protected from public disclosure to protect a person's privacy interests. If information is confidential by statute, a governmental body generally cannot release the information under the PIA. 

Governmental bodies also maintain information that is not confidential by law. A governmental body has the option to withhold non-confidential information in certain circumstances.

A governmental body must withhold confidential information from public disclosure. On the other hand, a governmental body has the choice (or, discretion) to withhold other requested, non-confidential information.

These are common types of information considered confidential by law:

  • Dates of birth of living persons
  • Driver’s license numbers
  • License plate numbers
  • Credit card numbers
  • Insurance policy numbers
  • Juvenile offender records
  • Child abuse investigations
  • Peace officer’s home address
  • Peace officer’s family member information

The governmental body is required to seek a ruling from the OAG unless a previous determination has been made allowing the information to be withheld.  If a governmental body has previously released information voluntarily that is not confidential by law, the governmental body cannot claim a discretionary exception to withhold the previously released information. 

A person or a person's authorized representative has a special right of access, beyond the right of the general public, to information held by a governmental body that relates to the person. Texas Government Code 552.023.

Do I have to say why I want access to the requested records?

No. The governmental body and any agent (or employee) of the governmental body may not ask why you want the records.

How do I make my public information request?

A public information request must be in writing to the governmental body you believe has the information. Your written request needs to be for information already in existence. 

A governmental body is not required to answer questions, perform legal research, give legal advice, or create new information in response to your public information request.

Follow these steps:

  1. Identify the right state agency. 
    Check the governmental body’s website first. Some of the information you may be looking for can be found online. Also, their website may include their form for requesting information or general information on how to submit a request for public information (see step 4).
  2. Prepare your written request.
    1. Include enough description and detail about the information requested to enable the governmental body to accurately identify and locate the information requested.
    2. Remember, the government body cannot ask why you are requesting information and you do not have to say why you want access to the records.
    3. *Find sample public information requests here and here.
  3. Make copies of your written request for your records.
  4. Deliver your request.
    1. You can only deliver your request by one of the following methods to the governmental body’s public information officer or the person/officer designed by the governmental body to receive these requests:
      1. United States mail;
      2. Electronic mail; 
      3. Hand delivery (according to the government body’s reasonable procedures); or  
      4. Any other method approved by the governmental body. Texas Government Code 552.234.
  5. Keep a copy of your delivery for proof the governmental body received your request.
  6. Keep in contact with the government body. You may check in or ask for status updates on your requested records. Cooperate with the governmental body's reasonable efforts to clarify the type or amount of information requested.
  7. You did not receive your records? If you believe a governmental body has not properly responded to your request, you can contact the Open Records Hotline at 512-478-6736 or toll-free at 877-OPEN TEX (877-673-6839).

Read the OAG’s Tips For a Successful Public Information Request.

Will I be charged for my public information request?

A governmental body can charge for copies of the information. The fee must be reasonable. The fee also cannot be used to discourage someone from asking for information. A governmental entity can also waive copying charges. An option to avoid charges is to ask to view the records in person at the governmental body’s physical location.

If your charge for the records is more than $40, then you should also receive an itemized bill. For more information, see the Texas Cost Rules tab in the Resources section of our website. 

What are my rights as a requestor?

As part of your PIA request, you have the right to:

  • Prompt access to information that is not confidential or otherwise protected
  • Receive equal treatment, including accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as all reasonable comfort and facility while inspecting the records. Texas Government Code 552.223 and 552.224.
  • Receive certain kinds of information without exceptions, like the voting record of public officials, and other information
  • Receive a written itemized statement of estimated charges, when charges will exceed $40. You should receive this statement before the government body works on your request. This will allow you the chance to change your request in response to the itemized statement
  • Choose whether to inspect the requested information (most often at no charge), receive copies of the information, or both. You do not have the right to remove any original physical record from the office. Texas Government Code 552.226.
  • A waiver or reduction of charges if the governmental body determines that access to the information primarily benefits the general public
  • Receive a copy of the communication from the governmental body asking the Office of the Attorney General for a ruling on whether the information can be withheld under one of the accepted exceptions, or if the communication discloses the requested information, a redacted copy
  • Lodge a written complaint about overcharges for public information with the OAG. Complaints of other possible violations may be filed with the county or district attorney of the county where the governmental body, other than a state agency, is located. If the complaint is against the county or district attorney, the complaint must be filed with the OAG.

When will I receive my requested documents?

The law says the governmental body must “promptly” produce the public information requested. “Promptly” means that the governmental body may take a reasonable amount of time to produce the information and may not delay. Texas Government Code 552.221.

The amount of time considered reasonable will depend on the facts of your situation. For example, if you are only requesting a few documents, then a reasonable time may be shorter than if the request is for hundreds or thousands of pages of records.

If a governmental body will take longer than ten business days to produce the requested information, the governmental body must notify you when the information will be released. If the governmental body withholds any of the requested information, then in most cases, the governmental body must request a ruling from the OAG.

My request was denied and I believe it was a violation of the Act. What can I do?

If a governmental body fails to respond to your request for information or requests an OAG ruling within ten business days, you may file an informal written complaint with the Open Records Division of the OAG.

Complaints can also be filed against governmental bodies that fail to comply with the OAG’s ruling. Additionally, complaints may be filed against governmental bodies if you believe you are being overcharged for a copy or inspection of public information. You may also file a formal complaint with your district or county attorney.

See additional information about how to report a violation of the PIA or filing a complaint.

How might the Act apply to my family law case?

The Act could be helpful in your family law case for many reasons.

Most court documents and orders in a family law case are considered public records. This means you could use the PIA to request a case file and get copies of your court documents and orders.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) also must respond to PIA requests. You can get a copy of your existing CPS records this way. The Act does not require DFPS to create new information, do legal research, or answer questions. If you have a CPS issue, you can speak with a member of the Family Helpline (TLSC) or call 844-888-6565.

Many state law enforcement agencies are subject to the PIA. This means you could make a request for criminal records if you need to use them as evidence in your case. This may be important if your case involves family violence.

Read about gathering and presenting evidence here.

How can I access adoption records in Texas?

Read this article that answers frequently asked questions about accessing adoption records in Texas.  

What about using a subpoena to access information?

A subpoena is a written legal document that commands a person or entity to:

  1. produce documents or other tangible objects in a legal proceeding, or
  2. testify as a witness at a specified time and place (at a deposition, trial, or other hearing).

The written request for the production of documents is called a subpoena duces tecum. All subpoenas must follow certain requirements. Issuing a subpoena can be time-sensitive and there are many rules that govern subpoenas in Texas. Failure to follow the rules on subpoenas could result in you not receiving the documents you need. Issuing subpoenas to many different government bodies could also become expensive.

A subpoena duces tecum, or any other request for discovery is not considered to be a request for information under the PIA. Texas Government Code 552.0055. Additionally, the PIA does not prevent you from issuing discovery of your own. Texas Government Code 552.005. Speak to a lawyer if you have questions about the discovery process.

You could request access to public records through the PIA instead of using a subpoena, which could save money or attorney’s fees. If you choose to go through the PIA, make sure you request the records with enough time to ensure you receive them. For any contested hearing, a party must give the other party at least 45 days’ notice. Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 503.3(a). You should consider requesting documents through the PIA well before this timeline.

On the other hand, there are benefits from using a subpoena. A subpoena is considered a court order. If a person does not comply by turning over the requested documents, they could face contempt charges, punishable by jail, a fine, or both.

If you have questions about subpoenas, you should speak with a family law attorney. Use our legal directory here.

Where can I read more about the Texas Public Information Act (PIA)?

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has a Public Information Act Handbook 2020. You can view or download the handbook here. If you need further help, you can call the Open Government Hotline at (512) 478-6736 or toll-free at 877-OPEN TEX (877-673-6839).

The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts has information on their website, as well. For requesting records from this government agency, visit their website.

The following organizations also have information:

Is there a right to access federal government records?

Like Texas’ PIA, each state has its own public access laws that should be consulted for access to state and local records.

For federal governmental bodies, access to information is controlled by The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA is a federal freedom of information law that requires the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government upon request. 

The FOIA applies only to federal agencies. You can find tips for making a request under the FOIA here. Start your FOIA request here.

The FOIA does not apply to:

  • Records held by Congress, the courts, or by any state or local government;
  • Non-agency records;
  • Personal records; and
  • Public requests for access to physical artifacts or scientific samples. agencies. 

Read the federal FOIA law here.

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