The Second District Court of Appeals ruled that an agency can not permanently ban a person from making public records request over an unpaid invoice. In May 2018, Zachary Smith submitted a public records request to the State Attorney’s Office for the Twentieth Judicial Circuit related to his conviction. The Office sent him an invoice for $18, but Smith said he was unable to pay for the records. The next year, in March 2019, the Office sent the records requestor a second invoice and a notice that the requested records would be destroyed if he did not pay within 30 days and that he would be prohibited from making any records requests to the agency.
Nonetheless, Smith sent another records request in April 2020. The Office reminded Smith that it would not provide him records due to his unpaid invoice. Seven months later, Smith again asked for the records and sent the Office a $25 check to cover the original invoice and additional costs for the new records request. However, the Office returned a voided check, reiterating that it would not respond to his requests for information.
Smith sued the Office and asked the trial court to order the Office to provide him the records, but the trial court sided with the Office and denied his mandamus petition. The Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision. The State Attorney’s Office argued that it was allowed to deny Smith’s future requests based on the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s decision in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, contending that an agency can refuse to produce additional records if the fees from a previous request for records have not been paid by the requestor.
The Second District Court of Appeal distinguished this case from Lozman, explaining that Smith was not told that he had to pay the invoice for the first records request before the agency would make any further documents available. Additionally, in Lozman, the records requestor refused to pay for documents that were available to him. The State Attorney’s Office, however, destroyed records it compiled for Smith and then rejected his efforts to pay for the requests. According to the Court, Lozman could have accessed additional records once he paid for the first batch of records; Smith was prohibited from requesting any more records.
The Court noted that while the right to access government records is not unlimited, “permanently and impermissibly preventing Mr. Smith from obtaining public records abridges his guaranteed right to access public records.”
The Court reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case. Read the opinion here.