What is FOIA? How Do We Use It?

FOIA (pronounced “foy-yah”) stands for Freedom of Information Act. It was enacted in 1967 by the US Congress and subsequently all states and local government agencies have FOIA procedures.

What is the purpose of FOIA? The premise is that our government is for the people. Therefore, information in possession by the government should be made available to the people. The full text of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act can be found here.

So, how does one go about filing a FOIA request? It sounds difficult, but it really isn’t. Each agency or body of government has their own ways, but the request generally can be made by filling out a form and submitting it to the appropriate agency by email, mail, or fax. The information is mostly your name and contact information, what you are seeking, and who you believe has the information. Most agencies have their own cookie cutter forms that you just fill out. Here’s an example of one from Fairfax County, Virginia, which is the county I practice law in the most.

As an attorney, FOIA requests can be helpful when I am seeking information about a case I am working on. For example, I have a current case where my client is charged with animal cruelty. It’s completely ridiculous that my client is even being charged with it, when she does not even own the dogs, but what’s more ridiculous is that the dogs weren’t treated badly. During the first few months of COVID-19, the true owners, who are a woman in her 60s who has dementia and her husband who is in his 70s with serious heart conditions, couldn’t risk their lives to take the dogs to the groomer. I needed information that the Animal Control Officer had, which she wasn’t willing to give me even though she could have easily just told me. Sometimes, it baffles me that people aren’t professional and insist on being difficult. Anyway, be mindful that there are exceptions that a government agency can point to and refuse to give the information that you seek. If that is the case, you may get a redacted document.

I hope this gives you an idea of what FOIA is and how it can work for your benefit (sometimes).