Searching and Producing Public Records
This page provides guidance on how to search for and produce public records to help local governments in Washington State complywith the Public Records Act (PRA) as explained further by current case law.
It is part of MRSC's series on the Public Records Act.
The PRA requires that agencies perform an adequate search to locate records responsive to a public records request.
The PRA itself doesn’t provide detailed instructions on how to conduct an adequate search. Instead, those requirements can be found in court decisions interpreting the PRA, including Neighborhood Alliance v. Spokane County (2011) and Block v. City of Gold Bar (2015). Those cases direct agencies to:
- Conduct the search in a manner that is reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents
- Consider all locations where responsive records are likely located
- Follow obvious leads as they are uncovered
The printable practice tips below explain in more detail how to perform an adequate search, based on PRA case law.
PRA: How to Perform an Adequate Search
The PRA requires that agencies perform an adequate search to locate records responsive to a public records request. Use these practice tips to guide your agency's search for responsive records. Re-designed and revised with minor clarifications in March 2021.
Download in PDF
The PRA forbids agencies from destroying records when there is a pending request for those records. This applies even if the records could be destroyed under the standard retention and destruction schedule. Agencies must inform staff and officials of the records request in a timely manner. One option is to provide staff and officials with a "PRA hold memo," asking them to suspend all ordinary destruction of records. See MRSC's sample PRA hold memo (Word document download).
To show that the agency has adequately searched all relevant locations, consider developing search steps for specific locations to search and standard search terms for when particular types of records are requested. For an example of this type of standard search outline, see MRSC’s Sample Search Steps for Requests for Record Regarding Properties. If you have a search template, you can use it to tell the requestor the search terms used in locating responsive records; this can also help show that the agency performed an adequate search.
Searching email mailboxes for records responsive to a records request is a particularly challenging task given the volume of emails sent and received by staff and officials. Consider investing in software that allows certain staff members to search all agency email and find responsive records.
If your agency does not have the budget to invest in such software or otherwise does not have the capability to conduct a search of all agency email, consider using an email voting tool, which allows the PRO to efficiently survey staff and officials on whether they have responsive emails.
Practice Tip: Microsoft Outlook has a “voting function” that can be included in an email, which allows the email recipient to vote “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” regarding whether they have responsive records. To learn how to use the Outlook voting function, refer to our Using Microsoft Outlook's Voting Function Practice Tips.
Agencies can be constrained in performing a centralized search if responsive records that reside on an employee’s or official’s personal device or personal account, such as on a personal smart phone or personal email or social media account.
Washington Courts recognize this and have said that the agency can rely on the employee or official to perform their own search of their device or account. The officer then certifies that they have done the search by signing an affidavit or declaration that details the extent and nature of their search. The affidavit or declaration must be “reasonably detailed” and “nonconclusory,” and should describe the accounts, devices and locations searched and the names and search terms used to locate responsive records.
See Nissen v. Pierce County (2015) and Block v. City of Gold Bar (2015) for more guidance on what constitutes, as documented by affidavits, an adequate search of personal devices and personal email accounts.
- WA Attorney General's Office: Commercial Purpose Declaration Affidavit Template (2019) – Use this template to obtain an affidavit or declaration from a requestor to establish that requested lists of individuals will not be used for commercial purpose. If the agency has a reasonable belief that the individual will use the list for commercial purposes, the agency has an affirmative obligation to investigate how the requestor intends to use the list.