405 – Confidentiality and Dissemination of Information

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Purpose

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) is subject to the Texas Government Code Annotated, Chapter 552, “Public Information,” commonly known as the Public Information Act (referred to as the “Act” in this policy), and as stipulated by this Act, the Sheriff is deemed to be the custodian of all HCSO records.

HCSO employees are in a unique position to acquire and to have access to information which, by law or regulation, is deemed confidential or privileged. Additionally, certain national security operations involving HCSO personnel may involve access to classified information. Such information should not be released pursuant to an open records request. [CALEA Standard 82.1.1 a & c]

The Public Information Act gives the public the right of access to many government records. While all government information is presumed to be available to the public, certain exceptions may apply to the disclosure of some information, keeping it confidential. This policy is issued to allow access to public information created, maintained, or compiled by the HCSO while safeguarding confidential information by timely requesting Texas Attorney General guidance on specific requests and exclusions.

This policy provides guidance for responding to requests for information made under the Act and applies to all HCSO employees. The unauthorized dissemination or transmittal of confidential, privileged, or classified information is prohibited. If ever in doubt as to whether a document should be disclosed or withheld pursuant to a public information or open records request, always contact the HCSO general counsel or someone in HCSO Legal Services for guidance.

Definitions

Public Information: Information collected, assembled, or maintained under a law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by the HCSO or on behalf of the HCSO, and the agency owns the information or has a right of access to it.

Public Information Act Coordinator (PIA Coordinator): Persons designated by a bureau to be trained and to oversee compliance with the Act for that bureau.

Public Information Request: A request for public information contained in the files or records of a Texas governmental agency. This is sometimes referred to as an open records request.

  • A request must be in writing and cannot be verbally made.
  • A responder provides information but is not required to answer questions or create new information.
  • Time is of the essence in answering requests.

General Duties of Public Information Act Coordinators

Each bureau commander shall designate one or more PIA coordinators for that bureau and shall notify the HCSO general counsel of the appointment. Any changes to appointments of PIA coordinators must be provided to the HCSO general counsel within 48 hours of such change.

Appointment and Training of PIA Coordinators

All PIA coordinators shall become familiar with the law through online training provided by the Texas Attorney General at:

https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/open/og_training.shtml.

Additional training will be provided as needed or requested. PIA coordinators shall be responsible for:

  1. Receiving requests,
  2. Maintaining a date log,
  3. Seeking clarification of the request,
  4. Providing Legal Services with the information required to generate a cost estimate, and
  5. Any other assistance requested by Legal Services.

Any questions regarding Public Information Act requests for information in a bureau will be directed to that bureau’s PIA coordinator. PIA coordinators shall direct their questions for assistance to the HCSO general counsel.

Cooperation Among All PIA Coordinators

All bureau PIA coordinators shall fully cooperate with each other regarding processing of all PIA requests. All PIA coordinators in each bureau shall review and maintain all public information requests received by their bureau. The PIA coordinator will determine whether his or her bureau maintains responsive Act information. [CALEA Standard 82.1.1 c]

  1. If the PIA coordinator determines the request applies in whole, or in part, to the responsive Act information maintained by another bureau, the PIA coordinator shall immediately electronically forward the request to the appropriate bureau PIA coordinator with a copy to HCSO general counsel.
  2. When forwarding the PIA request to the appropriate bureau, the PIA coordinators shall specifically note which requested items the PIA coordinator believes the other bureau may maintain.
  3. The receiving bureau PIA coordinator shall immediately confirm receipt of the forwarded request to the sending PIA coordinator with a copy to HCSO general counsel.
  4. When the PIA coordinator determines that his or her bureau maintains information responsive to a valid request submitted to his or her bureau, the PIA coordinator shall coordinate the bureau’s response to such request.
  5. The PIA coordinator shall contact all bureau units that maintain the requested information.
  6. Upon being contacted by the PIA coordinator, the responsible bureau unit must gather all responsive documents (or representative samples if the responsive documents are voluminous) and deliver the documents unaltered to the PIA coordinators within three (3) business days.

Upon receipt of the gathered information, the PIA coordinators will then review such records to determine:

  1. Responsiveness to the request and
  2. Whether the information falls within one of the excepted categories under the Act.

In cases where the PIA coordinator is unsure as to whether the responsive information falls within one of the excepted categories under the Act, the coordinator shall contact the HCSO general counsel, who will determine the appropriate action to take in conjunction with the bureau holding the requested information.

NOTE: A brief must be sent to the Texas Attorney General within ten business days of receipt of a request to be considered for exclusion of the information.

Procedures and Responsibilities

The Act requires adherence to strict deadlines for responses to requests for public information. Therefore, written requests (received by mail, e-mail, facsimile, or hand-delivery) for public information submitted to any HCSO employee must be forwarded to the PIA coordinator with a copy to the HCSO general counsel within twenty-four (24) hours of receipt.

  1. HCSO employees who receive a request shall record the receipt date and forward the document as stated above.
  2. Any HCSO employee, other than a PIA coordinator, who receives a request, and any bureau authorized to respond to requests, shall not make any decision concerning whether requested information is confidential or withhold information without first consulting the HCSO general counsel. [CALEA Standard 82.1.1 c]

If ever in doubt, immediately forward the request to general counsel.

Subpoena Duces Tecum

A subpoena duces tecum (literal translation: “bring with you”) or a request for discovery issued in compliance with a statute or a rule of civil or criminal procedure is not considered to be a request under the Act and is not subject to the procedure stated in this policy.

  1. HCSO information is often requested by and through subpoenas duces tecum. Employees should be aware that many subpoenas duces tecum received by the HCSO are not issued by a court but rather are issued by a private reporting service employed by an attorney for that purpose.
  2. All subpoenas duces tecum are subject to objections, regardless of who issues them, although such subpoenas issued by criminal courts are generally honored by the HCSO. Employees are advised to consult with the HCSO general counsel if there are any questions regarding whether and how a subpoena duces tecum should be handled.

Recovery of Costs

In accordance with the Act and Texas Administrative Code, Title 1, Chapter 70, “Cost of Copies of Public Information,” the HCSO will recover the full costs for retrieving and copying public records. Under strict requirements established by the Texas Attorney General, the HCSO may collect fees associated with the collecting, copying, preparing, and transmitting of public information to requestors if certain conditions apply. The rules related to charging for public information can be found in Texas Administrative Code, Title 1, Chapter 70. Any questions about charges and collections should be directed to general counsel or HCSO Legal Services (713-755-4511).

Potential Liability for Failure to Comply with the Act and this Policy

Violation of this policy may result in disciplinary action for employees or a termination of employment relationship in the case of contractors or consultants. Additionally, persons may be subject to civil and / or criminal prosecution for violation of the Act. Employees may also face disciplinary action by the HCSO for the destruction, removal, or alteration of public information; the failure or refusal to provide access to or copies of public information; and the intentional disclosure of information considered confidential under the Act. [CALEA Standard 82.1.1 a & c]

Amendments

The HCSO general counsel may approve alternate procedures, in writing, authorizing the bureau to process or respond to Act requests in a manner other than described herein.

Revision

This policy has been revised on the below listed dates:

April 21, 2009

June 6, 2014

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