By DeJuan Foster and Samim Arif

Have you ever used your cell phone to take a picture of a public record? Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act provides an option for members of the public to copy records on their own equipment. A team of Indiana University graduate students this spring put that option to a small test using one of the most common pieces of equipment available.

The students from IU’s Media School went to four county courthouses – Greene, Lawrence, Monroe and Owen – and asked to see search warrant returns. Law enforcement officials are required to file a return detailing any materials seized after executing a search warrant. The returns are maintained in county courts and are generally open to public inspection.

The test shed light not just on using cell phones as copiers but also on inconsistent agency approaches to providing access to public records.

At the courthouses in Greene and Lawrence counties, reporters were readily able to inspect search warrant returns and take cell phone pictures, without incident.

In Monroe and Owen counties, however, it wasn’t so easy.

A Monroe County clerk’s office employee told one reporter that search warrant returns would be kept by the law enforcement department that conducted the searches. The next day at the same office, though, a second reporter got a different response. An employee told him search warrants are confidential and would allow the reporter to look only at a blank form.

In Owen County, Clerk Linda Roy was similarly protective of the documents. Roy said the only way people can see search warrant returns is if the documents pertain to them – and she said she wouldn’t release the documents without seeing identification of the requesters.

According to Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, however, the public records act does not limit who can inspect public records, nor does it require requesters to provide identification.

Informed about different responses at neighboring counties, Roy said: “I don’t care what other counties do. We don’t do it that way.”

Search warrants and warrant returns are often filed before a criminal case is established and a cause number assigned. Because of that, some counties such as Marion keep the documents in a central place, typically the clerk’s office.

But Roy said Owen County does not maintain its warrants that way. “We can’t just search a search warrant unless we have a cause number knowing whose search warrant you are looking for,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to pull a file out and find a search warrant, you have to give us information.”

So what’s the takeaway?

If you ask for a less frequently requested record such as a search warrant return, be prepared to meet resistance. But on the other hand, you might have good luck using your cell phone to make copies of public records for free.

According to Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, public agencies can decide whether to provide requesters with a copy or allow them to use their own equipment to reproduce a document.

Key noted that some agencies, especially county recorders, are sensitive to maintaining copy fees because they contribute to their operating budgets. County recorder offices are allowed by state statute to charge $1 per page for copies. He said the legislature’s intent was to fund record perpetuation funds to preserve documents for legal reasons.

“You don’t necessarily have the right, in some places, to use your phone to make a copy,” Key said.

But it doesn’t hurt to try. Reporters in this test were able to get cell phone pictures – without fees – in two out of four cases.

Craig Lyons contributed to this story.

This story is part of a project exploring digital access to local government information in Indiana. Click here to return to the main project page.