Sacramento District Attorney needs $6000 to Search for Words in Email

The Sacramento District Attorney’s office wants to charge $6,511.06 to conduct a keyword search through their internal email system and to count the number of people it charged with crimes this year.

Email Text Searches Are Not That Expensive

The DA’s office responded to a California Public Records Act request from October by not releasing a single document. Out of eight categories of documents requested, the DA responded by saying either the search was not responsive, that some exemption applied, or that the cost to search would be too burdensome and that MAGS would have to pay for the cost itself before the search could take place.

This is what the DA’s office believes is required to search for a word or phrase in an email:

Emails utilizing District Attorney accounts are stored both on employees’ computers and to a limited degree can also be retrieved from stored retained emails. If you desire a search and production of stored retained emails, we may have to purchase software and then design a program that would retrieve the emails responsive to your request.

MAGS requested an estimate of the cost to conduct just such a search, offering to provide a list of keywords to help in the creation of an estimate. The DA’s response:

With regards to your request (j), this one is much more complex. You have not further identified the specific search terms sought for your inquiry, so based on your previous request, I asked our IT Department for the cost to conduct a search of emails from January 1, 2016 through December 31, 2016, for the term “homelessness” in any communications with the following specified persons or agencies: [list of agencies omitted for space]. It is estimated that this search would take approximately 80 hours for an IT Analyst 2, at a cost of $6,246.40. Furthermore, the domain name would be required for each of the agencies.

That comes to $78.08 per hour. This is effectively a complete denial of the request. The denial is further compounded by the fact that, even if MAGS paid for the search, searching alone does not necessarily guarantee that MAGS will receive any of the emails that are responsive:

Please note that any correspondence that is located would have to be reviewed to determine if an exemption would prohibit disclosure.

Given the agency’s demonstrated reluctance to release any document whatsoever, it seems unlikely that any such search would yield a significant release of documents. Frequently, government agencies trying to comply with the minimum standards that transparency laws require while not performing any meaningful searches or providing any real documents will release email chains. Here, the DA’s office will not even perform what other agencies treat as the minimum acceptable standard for the Public Records Act.

How Many People Did We Charge? Nobody Knows.

MAGS asked for the number of arrestees whom the DA’s office eventually charged with crimes in 2016. However, the office does not count the number of people they charge with crimes. They offered to “run a report from [their] computerized case management system of cases submitted to [the] office for the identified time period in which criminal charges were filed.” The estimated cost to run this report was $264.66 for three hours spent by a Senior IT Analyst, which amounts to $88.22 per hour. The DA’s office did not provide a reason for the search being conducted by a senior member of the IT team, nor did it state why this search required a different level analyst from that required by the email search.

What Do Words Mean?

Finally, in a Herculean effort to not release a single document responding to any of MAGS’s requests, the DA’s office stated that in response to a request for “[a]udit documents, including but not limited to audits of the system, misuse reports, and reports to oversight bodies,” they had no idea what MAGS was talking about. Two lines above, the request asked about training programs and policies relating to the DA’s office’s interactions with homeless defendants. The DA’s response:

You have not defined what you mean by ‘audit documents’ or any of the other terms you have mentioned, which are subject to various interpretations. Moreover, you have not identified a time frame for your request. We are unable to respond with the information you have provided as we are not able to determine what you are seeking.

Merriam-Webster defines audit as “a methodical examination and review.”