Freedom of Information (FOIA) Rights and Responsibilities

The Rights of Requesters and the Responsibilities of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), located in § 2.2-3700 et seq. of the Code of Virginia, guarantees citizens of the Commonwealth and representatives of the media access to public records held by public bodies, public officials, and public employees.

A public record is any writing or recording—regardless of whether it is a paper record, an electronic file, an audio or video recording, or any other format—that is prepared or owned by, or in the possession of a public body or its officers, employees, or agents in the transaction of public business. All public records are presumed to be open, and may only be withheld if a specific, statutory exemption applies.

The policy of FOIA states that the purpose of FOIA is to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities. In furthering this policy, FOIA requires that the law be interpreted liberally, in favor of access, and that any exemption allowing public records to be withheld must be interpreted narrowly.

Your FOIA Rights

  • You have the right to request to inspect or receive copies of public records, or both.
  • You have the right to request that any charges for the requested records be estimated in advance. Public bodies must notify the requester in writing that the public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for requested records and inquire of the requester whether they would like to request a cost estimate in advance of the supplying of the requested records.
  • If you believe that your FOIA rights have been violated, you may file a petition in district or circuit court to compel compliance with FOIA. Alternatively, you may contact the FOIA Council for a nonbinding advisory opinion. The Council may be contacted by email at foiacouncil@dls.virginia.gov, or by phone at (804) 698-1810 or toll-free at 1-866-448-4100.

Making a Request for Records from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources

  • You may make requests for records by U.S. Mail, fax, email, in person, or over the phone – FOIA does not require that you use any particular method to convey your request. FOIA also does not require that your request be in writing, nor do you need to state that you are requesting records pursuant to FOIA.
    • From a practical perspective, it may be helpful to both you and the person receiving your request to put your request in writing. This enables you to create a record of your request. It also gives us a clear statement of what records you are requesting, so that there is no misunderstanding resulting from a verbal request. However, we cannot refuse to respond to your FOIA request if you elect to not put it in writing.
  • Your request must identify the records you are seeking with “reasonable specificity.” This is a common-sense standard. It does not refer to or limit the volume or number of records that you are requesting; instead, it requires that you be specific enough so that we can identify and locate the records that you are seeking.
  • Your request must ask for existing records or documents. FOIA gives you a right to inspect or copy records; it does not apply to a situation where you are asking general questions about the Department of Wildlife Resources’ work, nor does it require the Department of Wildlife Resources to create a record that does not exist.
  • You may choose to receive electronic records in any format used by the Department of Wildlife Resources in the regular course of business.
    • For example, if you are requesting records maintained in an Excel spreadsheet, you may elect to receive those records electronically, via email, on a computer disk or flash drive, or to receive a printed copy of those records.
  • If we have questions about your request, please cooperate with staff’s efforts to clarify the type of records that you are seeking, or to attempt to reach a reasonable agreement about a response to a large request. Making a FOIA request is not an adversarial process, but we may need to discuss your request with you to ensure that we understand what records you are seeking.

To request records from the Department of Wildlife Resources, you may direct your request to the DWR’s FOIA Officer, Jessica Schiarelli. She can be reached at foia@dwr.virginia.gov or by phone at (804) 367-0077. You may also contact her with questions you have concerning requesting records from the Department of Wildlife Resources.

In addition, the Freedom of Information Advisory Council is available to answer any questions you may have about how FOIA works. The Council was created in the legislative branch of state government to issue opinions on the operation and application of FOIA, to publish educational materials, and to provide training about FOIA. However, please be aware that the Council is not a records repository and does not process records requests on behalf of other public bodies, nor is the Council an investigative or enforcement agency. The Council may be contacted by email at foiacouncil@dls.virginia.gov, or by phone at (804) 698-1810 or toll-free at 1-866-448-4100.

You may also provide feedback regarding the quality of assistance you received regarding your request for public records by submitting a public comment form to the FOIA Council. The form can be found at the FOIA Council’s website. The form includes instructions on how to submit it.

The Department of Wildlife Resources’ Responsibilities in Responding to Your Request

  • The Department of Wildlife Resources must respond to your request within five working days of receiving it. “Day One” is considered the workday after your request is received. The five-day period does not include weekends, holidays or other days when the Department of Wildlife Resources is closed.
  • The reason behind your request for public records is irrelevant, and you do not have to state why you want the records before we respond to your request. FOIA does, however, allow the Department of Wildlife Resources to require you to provide your name and legal address.
  • FOIA requires that the Department of Wildlife Resources make one of the following responses to your request within the five-day time period:
    1. We provide you with the records that you have requested.
    2. We withhold all of the records that you have requested, because all of the records are subject to a specific statutory exemption. If all of the records are being withheld, we must send you a response in writing. That writing must identify the volume and subject matter of the records being withheld, and state the specific section of the Code of Virginia or other applicable law that allows us to withhold the records.
    3. We provide some of the records that you have requested, but withhold other records. We cannot withhold an entire record if only a portion of it is subject to an exemption. In that instance, we may redact the portion of the record that may be withheld, and must provide you with the remainder of the record. We must provide you with a written response stating the specific section of the Code of Virginia or other applicable law that allows portions of the requested records to be withheld.
    4. We inform you in writing that the requested records cannot be found or do not exist (we do not have the records you requested). However, if we know that another public body has the requested records, we must include contact information for the other public body in our response to you.
    5. If it is practically impossible for the Department of Wildlife Resources to respond to your request within the five-day period, we must state this in writing, explaining the conditions that make the response impracticable. This will allow us an additional seven working days to respond to your request, giving us a total of 12 working days to respond to your request. In the case of criminal investigative files requested pursuant to § 2.2-3706.1 of the Code of Virginia, we are allowed an additional 60 working days to respond to your request, giving us a total of 65 working days to respond to your request.
  • If you make a request where we determine that, due to the volume of the requested records or the research to find the requested records, we cannot respond to your request within 12 working days without disrupting our other organizational responsibilities, we will reach out to you to make a reasonable effort to reach an agreement as to when we will produce the records. However, if we cannot reach such an agreement, we may petition the court for additional time to respond to your request.

Charges

  • A public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. No public body shall impose any extraneous, intermediary, or surplus fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records or transacting the general business of the public body. Any duplicating fee charged by a public body shall not exceed the actual cost of duplication. Prior to conducting a search for records, the public body shall notify the requester in writing that the public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for requested records and inquire of the requester whether he would like to request a cost estimate in advance of the supplying of the requested records as set forth in subsection F of § 2.2-3704 of the Code of Virginia.
  • You may have to pay for the records that you request from the Department of Wildlife Resources. FOIA allows us to charge for the actual costs of responding to FOIA requests. This would include items like staff time spent searching for the requested records, copying costs, or any other costs directly related to supplying the requested records. Any charges cannot include general overhead costs.
  • If we estimate that it will cost more than $200 to respond to your request, we may require you to pay a deposit, not to exceed the amount of the estimate, before proceeding with your request. The five days that we have to respond to your request does not include the time between when we ask for a deposit and when you respond.
  • You may request that we estimate in advance the charges for supplying the records that you have requested. This will allow you to know about any costs upfront, or give you the opportunity to modify your request in an attempt to lower the estimated costs. The five days that we have to respond to your request does not include the time between when we send you the estimate and when you respond. If you do not respond within 30 days, then your request will be deemed withdrawn.
  • If you owe us money from a previous FOIA request that has remained unpaid for more than 30 days, the Department of Wildlife Resources may require payment of the past-due bill before it will respond to your new FOIA request.

Types of Records

The following is a general description of the types of records held by the Department of Wildlife Resources:

  • Personnel records concerning employees and officials of the Department of Wildlife Resources
  • Records of contracts which the Department of Wildlife Resources has entered into
  • Records related to wildlife, habitats, wildlife and habitat management, hunting, fishing, trapping, and boating
  • Records related to the lands, boat ramps, and other facilities that the Department of Wildlife Resources owns and/or manages
  • Records related to the law enforcement activities of the Virginia Conservation Police
  • Records related to Department of Wildlife Resources publications, social media, and marketing campaigns
  • Records relating to the financial operations of the department

If you are unsure whether the Department of Wildlife Resources has the record(s) you seek, please contact DWR’s FOIA Officer, Jessica Schiarelli, directly at either foia@dwr.virginia.gov , or (804) 367-0077, or the Department of Wildlife Resources, Attn: FOIA Compliance Officer, P.O. Box 90778, Henrico, Virginia 23228-0778.

Commonly Used Exemptions

The Code of Virginia allows any public body to withhold certain records from public disclosure. While the Department of Wildlife Resources is permitted to invoke any lawfully permitted exemption in responding to a FOIA request, it commonly withholds records subject to the following exemptions:

  • Personnel records (§ 2.2-3705.1 (1) of the Code of Virginia)
  • Records subject to attorney-client privilege (§ 2.2-3705.1 (2)) or attorney work product (§ 2.2-3705.1 (3))
  • Vendor proprietary information (§ 2.2-3705.1 (6))
  • Records relating to the negotiation and award of a contract, prior to a contract being awarded (§ 2.2-3705.1 (12))
  • Criminal investigative files relating to an ongoing criminal investigation or proceeding (§ 2.2-3706.1(C))
  • The identity of any individual providing information about a crime or criminal activity under a promise of anonymity (§ 2.2-3706(C))
  • Other exclusions appliable to law enforcement records (§ 2.2-3706(B))
  • Information on the site-specific location of rare, threatened, endangered, or otherwise imperiled plant and animal species, natural communities, and caves (§ 2.2-3705.7(10))

Policy Regarding the Use of Exemptions

  • The general policy of the Department of Wildlife Resources is to invoke the personnel records exemption in those instances where it applies in order to protect the privacy of employees and officials of the Department of Wildlife Resources.
  • The general policy of the Department of Wildlife Resources is to invoke the contract negotiations exemption whenever it applies in order to protect the Department of Wildlife Resources’ bargaining position and negotiating strategy.
  • The general policy of the Department of Wildlife Resources is to invoke the exemptions related to law enforcement records to protect the safety and rights of victims of crimes, the safety of witnesses to crimes, the ability to of law enforcement to investigate crimes, and the ability to effectively prosecute crimes.
  • The general policy of the Department of Wildlife Resources is to invoke the exemptions related to the site-specific locations of rare, threatened, endangered or otherwise imperiled plant and animal species, natural communities and caves to protect these resources from intentional harm or take.

Revised January 9, 2023