Public Records On Private Devices? Public Officials Must Produce Them All

Litigation, Government & Civil Rights, Appellate

The California Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that the public has a right to see emails and text messages about public business on government officials’ personal devices.  This landmark case sets a statewide precedent for records disclosure. The court’s ruling applies to all public entities in California — from water districts to school districts to cities, counties and state agencies.

The case began when Ted Smith, a former lawyer, suspected that San Jose officials were using their private phones and email accounts to conceal dealings with former Mayor Tom McEnery, who proposed a development in downtown San Jose and received a $6 million loan from the City’s Redevelopment Agency.

Smith argued all communications about city business should be public, regardless of how they are created, communicated, or stored.  The City of San Jose refused to turn over emails which concerned public business, but were sent or received on the private phones of City officials.

The Court ruled that officials who choose to conduct the people’s business privately on personal phones and computers must on request produce those communications.  Personal messages not related to public business will not be made public.