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In appropriate cases, the court will address the question of fees for the requested records. See, e.g., Birmingham News Co. v. Peevy, 21 Media L. Rep. (BNA) 2125 (Cir. Ct. of Montgomery County, Ala., July 22, 1993) (plaintiff ordered to pay actual, reasonable cost of creating a new computer program to retrieve the requested records and the statutorily mandated $5.75 for each driving record identified by named driver) (effective Sept. 13, 1997, access to MVRs is governed by 18 U.S.C. §  2721).

Alabama

The Alabama Supreme Court found in Birmingham News Co. v. Muse [Muse II, 1st appeal], 638 So. 2d 853 (Ala. 1994), that the question of delay in the release or ordered release of the requested records was moot and refused to address the issue. The Court did not suggest, however, that delay was an inappropriate issue to address, in the proper case.

Alabama

Any citizen, including any member of the news media (whether a corporation or other business form) and any group with an interest or stake in the controversy, may sue for access to public records. See Ala. Code § 36-12-40 (Supp. 2005); Scott v. Culpepper, 220 Ala. 393, 393-94, 125 So. 643, 644 (1930) (county citizen); Chambers v. Birmingham News Co., 552 So. 2d 854 (Ala. 1989) (newspaper); Accident Information Services of Alabama Inc., CV 92-9619 (Cir. Ct. of Jefferson County, Ala., Jan. 11, 1993) (corporation); Birmingham Education Ass'n v. Birmingham City Board of Education, CV 94-2637 (Cir. Ct. of Jefferson County, Ala., Nov. 15, 1995) (professional organization); Walsh v. Barnes, 541 So. 2d 33 (Ala. Civ. App. 1989) (insurance agent).

Alabama

A judicial action for access to public records may include a demand for declaratory judgment, asking the trial court to declare that a particular category of requested records is public under the Public Records Law. Rule 57 of the Alabama Rules for Civil Procedure provides for an action for declaratory judgment. In at least one recent case, however, the trial judge ordered a city internal audit released, as a public record, but refused to find that all internal audit reports of the city are "automatically subject to public disclosure." Birmingham News Co. v. Bedingfield, CV 91-1803 JDC (Cir. Ct. of Jefferson County, Ala., May 2, 1991) (affirmed in Bedingfield v. Birmingham News Co., 595 So. 2d 1379 (Ala. 1992)).

Alabama

The early records access cases in Alabama proceeded on petition for writ of mandamus. See, e.g., Brewer v. Watson [Brewer II], 65 Ala. 88, 96 (1880) (pre-Public Records Law case; "mandamus will lie to compel inspection" of public records); Holcombe v. State ex rel. Chandler, 240 Ala. 590, 200 So. 739 (1941) ("the publisher of a newspaper has such a public interest as will entitle him or his duly accredited representatives to a right of inspection of public records, and on denial the aid of a court by writ of mandamus to compel such public official to allow a reasonable inspection of public records in his charge, in order that the publisher may disseminate correct information therefrom to the public interest thus served"). As recently as 1973, the Alabama Supreme Court was still declaring that "[m]andamus is the proper remedy to compel a public official having custody of public writings to permit a citizen to inspect such public writings." State ex re. Kernells v. Ezell, 291 Ala. 440, 282 So. 2d 266 (1973). See also Walsh v. Barnes, 541 So. 2d 33, 34 (Ala. Civ. App. 1989) (grant of petition for writ of mandamus for access to public records affirmed).

A petition for injunctive relief, however, sometimes coupled with a prayer for declaratory judgment, is the typical pleading in the most recent cases. Since mandamus is permitted only when no other relief is available, the recent acceptance by trial and appellate courts of actions for injunctive relief in public records cases suggests that mandamus may no longer be appropriate. See Accident Information Services of Alabama Inc. v. Hoover, CV 92-9619 (Cir. Ct. of Jefferson Co., Ala., Jan. 11, 1993) (defendant moved to dismiss petition for writ of mandamus because injunctive relief would be adequate remedy). The petition for injunctive relief should ask the court to enjoin the defendant from denying the plaintiff access to the requested records.

The Supreme Court of Alabama has declared that "a motion to intervene is the procedurally correct means to seek the opening of a sealed court file." Holland v. Eads, 614 So. 2d 1012, 1014 (Ala. 1993). The Court has also made clear that the trial judge must do a complete in camera review of the withheld records in all public records cases and make "individualized determinations as to whether the [requested records] are due to be disclosed under the standards set out in Stone [404 So. 2d 678], Chambers [552 So. 2d 854], and [Muse, 638 So. 2d 853]." Birmingham News Co. v. Muse [Muse II, 1st appeal], 638 So. 2d 853, 858 (Ala. 1994).

Alabama

The governing statute of limitations for actions for access under the Public Records Law is Alabama Code § 6-2-38(l) (1993), which provides that "[a]ll actions for any injury to the person or rights of another not arising from contract and not specifically enumerated in this section must be brought within two years." Since an action for records access typically asks for equitable relief, not money damages, timeliness of the action may also be governed by laches, which bars an action that is not brought within a "reasonable time," even if the statutory two-year period has not run. A defendant who seeks to bar an action by laches, however, must show that the plaintiff's delay in bringing suit resulted in prejudice to the defendant. See, e.g., Hogan v. Carter, 431 So. 2d 1160, 1164 (Ala. 1983).

As a practical matter, timeliness is not usually a problem in records access cases. These actions are typically brought by members of the news media, who want and often need access to the requested records as quickly as possible. A petition for access is often filed within days or weeks of the denial of access, and sometimes within hours of such denial. Undue delay in filing suit may jeopardize the chances of convincing a court to enter a preliminary injunction, however. See Birmingham News Co. v. Chambers, CV 89-186 (Cir. Ct. of Shelby County, Ala., May 17, 1989) (request for permanent injunction granted and records ordered released within seven days, but application for preliminary injunction denied because of perceived delay by newspaper in bringing suit) (entry of permanent injunction affirmed in Chambers v. Birmingham News Co., 552 So. 2d 854 (Ala. 1989)).

Occasionally, the question of mootness will arise in a records access case. In State ex rel. Kernells v. Ezell, 291 Ala. 440, 282 So. 2d 266 (1973), for example, a citizen asked to inspect a petition for a county liquor referendum, the probate judge refused, and the citizen petitioned for a writ of mandamus, by which time the election on the matter was already completed. The Alabama Supreme Court found that because of the timing of such referendums, the issue was "capable of repetition yet evading review" and rejected the probate judge's mootness argument.

The mootness argument by a state university in Birmingham News Co. v. Muse [Muse II, 1st appeal], 638 So. 2d 853 (Ala. 1994), was more persuasive to the appellate court. The newspaper appealed the trial court's denial of a preliminary injunction, arguing that timeliness of the release of the university's response to the NCAA Letter of Inquiry was significant in order to give the public an opportunity to be informed about the process in time to participate in it. The Alabama Supreme Court disagreed, noting that the trial court had later entered a permanent injunction granting access to the requested documents: "The only judgment now capable of having any effect is the permanent injunction, and we decline to express an advisory opinion on the preliminary injunction under the circumstances of this case." 638 So. 2d at 854.

Alabama

Although we know of no authority that directly addresses this point, a complaint for access to public records in Alabama may be filed in the state circuit court in the county where the custodian of the records resides. See Ala. Code § 6-3-2(b)(3) (1993).

Alabama

Injunctive relief is the usual modern remedy, sometimes coupled with a declaratory judgment.

Alabama

The Public Records Law contains no reference to award of costs; therefore, Public Records Law cases are governed by Rule 54(d) of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure, which reads as follows: "Except when express provision therefor is made in a statute, costs shall be allowed as of course to the prevailing party unless the court otherwise directs."

Alabama

Former Alabama Code § 36-12-40 (1975) imposed a fine of not less than fifty dollars on any public officer who refused to allow a person to examine a public writing, but this provision was repealed effective Jan. 1, 1980. There is now no provision for a fine for the wrongful refusal to disclose public records in Alabama.

A number of Alabama statutes provide for fines for the unauthorized or prohibited disclosure of records that are made confidential by law. Some of these statutes purport to extract a fine from any person, arguably including reporters, who discloses the confidential record in question. See, e.g., Ala. Code § 12-15-100 (Supp. 2005) ("Whoever, except for the purposes permitted and in the manner provided by this section, discloses or makes use of or knowingly permits the use of information concerning a child before the [juvenile] court directly or indirectly derived from the records of the court or acquired in the course of official duties, upon conviction thereof, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor."). If the reporter has not obtained the records "wrongfully," the reporter's disclosure of the records should be protected from penalty by federal constitutional law. See Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989) (media not liable for disclosure of rape victim's name in violation of state law). To obtain the protection of Florida Star, the reporter must not knowingly solicit confidential records.

Alabama