LaWall v. R.R. Robertson, L.L.C. (7/2/2015)

July 14, 2015

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that a public records request can be noncommercial under Arizona’s statutes even if it does not relate to a specific or pending case and does not involve records that are admissible, A.R.S. § 39-121.03(D).

R.R. Robertson, L.L.C. (“R3”) made a public records request for portions of the register of criminal cases initiated by the Pima County Attorney’s Office since 2002.  As part of its request, R3 asserted that the request was being made for a noncommercial purpose under A.R.S. § 39-121.03(D).  A person requesting public records for a commercial purpose must provide a statement of commercial purpose and must pay various charges associated with commercial requests.  See A.R.S. § 39-121.03(A).  The county attorney, Barbara LaWall, agreed to provide the information requested but asserted that the request was made for a commercial purpose. 

R3 disagreed and LaWall filed a complaint seeking a declaration that the request was for a commercial purpose.  R3 and another associated party, Christopher DuPont, later made other similar requests.  LaWall objected again and added these new requests to the complaint.  One of the uses of the data R3 and DuPont requested was to add it to a database that could be researched and analyzed to provide sentencing analysis to paying clients.

R3 and DuPont moved for summary judgment arguing that their requests fall within the exception that a “[c]ommercial purpose does not mean the use of a public record as evidence or as research for evidence in an action in any judicial or quasi-judicial body.” A.R.S. § 39-121.03(D).  R3 argued that LaWall was wrong to assert that this exception requires a specific or pending case and that the requested records must be admissible.  The trial court granted R3 and DuPont’s motion for summary judgment and LaWall appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the language of the exception is plain and unambiguous.  It does not require a pending action or that the requested record is admissible.  The Court of Appeals held that the evolution of the statute also supports its finding.  The exception was added as part of a broad amendment to public records laws in 1985.    

The 1985 amendment also removed the requirement for a verified statement that there was no commercial purpose but it retained the requirement for a certified statement of commercial purpose.  This change means that a requester claiming noncommercial status is not required to provide any statement, and the custodian of records is almost powerless to challenge that noncommercial requester.

The same amendment made public records admissible as evidence unless otherwise provided by law.  The Court of Appeals noted that it would be unworkable to allow a custodian of records to make legal determinations about the admissibility of requested records in “any judicial or quasi-judicial body.”

Judge Kessler authored the opinion; Judges Gemmill and Jones concurred.