Anyone ever wondering why Florida has some of the weirdest news stories can look to the Sunshine State's public record laws. It's not actually because everyone in Florida is dumping alligators in a Wawa or allegedly giving their girlfriend battery charge-worthy wet willies.
The Sunshine Law is a broad state constitutional law established in 1995 to ensure that the public -- which includes everyday citizens, not just journalists -- has access to official records related to Florida's governing agencies.
What counts as a " public record"?
Public records apply to any document -- including photos, maps, papers, emails -- that are related to any official agency business. That means arrest reports from sheriff's offices and police departments, leading to man "Florida man" and "Florida woman" stories when stranger-than-fiction crimes are committed.
There are exemptions to Florida's public records law, including names of victims and their addresses.
Florida also has an Open Meetings Law, which requires minutes or notes be recorded during official meetings of two or more officials and that "all meetings of any governmental body where official acts will be taken are public meetings," according to BallotPedia.org.
How to submit a public records request
There are several ways to request documents from state, county and city offices. The First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to open government, offers these 10 tips to help with making a request. The foundation also has a list of Florida agency contacts who can help with records requests.
In some cases a formal request may not even be necessary, because a lot of records are already online. For example, state and local spending records are posted at myfloridacfo.com/transparency.
What are the consequences to ignoring a public records requests?
Failure to respond to a public records request often ends with expensive legal battles, and those lawsuit expenses can fall back on taxpayers if it's determined the office failed to comply with the Sunshine law.
In 2015, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi agreed to pay $700,000 of taxpayer dollars to a series of public records lawsuits claiming he and his staff violated the law "when they created email accounts to shield their communications from state public records laws and then withheld the documents," according to the Tampa Bay Times.
The same lawyer who filed that lawsuit recently threatened to sue the governor again for failing to answer records requests related to another lawsuit against the state on behalf of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.