The Arizona Supreme Court recently issued an important ruling providing that the hidden data embedded in electronic public records — sometimes referred to as metadata — is a public record that must be disclosed under Arizona’s public records law. The case arose when a Phoenix police officer submitted a public records request seeking his supervisor’s notes of the officer’s performance. Upon reviewing the paper copies of his supervisor’s notes, the officer suspected that the notes had been backdated when prepared on a computer. The officer then requested the metadata from his supervisor’s notes, which the officer believed would contain “the TRUE creation date, the access date, access dates for each time it was accessed, including who accessed the file as well as print dates etc.”
The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff police officer, rejecting the defendant City’s argument that requiring public entities to release metadata would be an “administrative nightmare” that would require public entities to spend “countless hours” sifting through metadata in response to public records requests. Crucial to the court’s decision was the fact that Arizona law defines the term “public records” broadly and creates a presumption requiring the disclosure of public documents. The court also emphasized that the “metadata in an electronic document is part of the underlying document; it does not stand on its own.” The court’s decision is believed to be the first ruling by a state supreme court that public records laws apply to metadata. To read the full text of the decision, click here.