FAQ: “Is this a record?”

Portrait of Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896), Chemist - from the Smithsonian Institution
“Thinking… thinking… thinking…” Portrait of Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896), Chemist – Smithsonian Institution via Flickr Commons

This week’s Question of the Week comes from a municipal police department. The question is:  “When a vehicle is repossessed, we create a form with the repo information on it: date, time, location, license plate number, which financial institution repossessed it. How long do we have to keep those forms?”

This type of record was not listed on any of our local retention schedules. Normally, that would mean that the police department would need to submit an amendment to add the records series. We would recommend a retention period based on our combined appraisal of the record’s administrative, fiscal, or legal value.

In this case, though, we weren’t so sure that the record in question was even a record. Why not? Well…

Both the Government Code and Local Government Code define what is meant by a “record.” [State agencies, see GC 441.180(11); Local governments, LGC 201.003(8).] Anyone working with records knows: almost everything you handle is a record.  It is often easier to define what a record is by what a record isn’t.

Here are the four types of materials that are legally not records:

  • Blank forms
  • Stocks (extra copies) of publications
  • Convenience copies
  • Library or museum materials (reference materials)

Going back to the form in question:  does it document the conduct of police business?  The police department doesn’t order or execute repossessions. Basically, the police department just needs to know about the repossessions — this knowledge keeps them from dispatching an officer for a car whose owner believes it’s been stolen, when in fact it’s just been repossessed.

So, our answer could go two ways: 1. Treat it like reference material; or 2. Add it to your schedule with a relatively short retention period.

We presented the police department with both options, and ultimately they chose the second option — to submit an amendment. The definition of a government record does state that a record is “created in the transaction of public business.”  If the police department merely retained copies of bank-issued lists of repossessed vehicles, then our answer would have been pretty simple: “It’s reference material — don’t schedule it.”  But because the police department did, in fact, create and refer to this form, there was a chance it would be considered a record, and obviously it does have some administrative value.

We thank this police department for giving us a little Friday detective work.

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