What are Public Records?
Public records are official records that are open to inspection by members of the public. They include information and data filed, collected, received and maintained by government organizations, departments, agencies, in accordance with specific laws such as the Federal Records Act, 1950 (as amended) or the Freedom of Information Act. Records created on behalf of public agencies by consultants or contractors are also considered public records.
What Constitutes Public Records?
Any record open to the general public falls under the umbrella of public records. Members of the public may request to view, inspect or collect copies of these records. However, the exact definition of what constitutes a public record varies across the country. Although federal, states and local governments maintain all types of records under their various laws, the types of information or data that are classified as public records in each geographical location may differ. In fact, each state has unique laws for collection, maintenance, disposal and accessibility of public records and federal laws relating to records only apply to the national government, congress, judicial, legislative and executive agencies.
The federal, states and local governments collect and maintain information on their own activities, actions, communication, finances, officers, employees, citizens, residents, and other organizations. The applicable open records laws empower the public to demand access to all that information, they also exclude certain information from public scrutiny. The exempted information or items may differ from one state to the other, up to the federal level.
A wide array of records may be considered public. Sources of public records may be states and local governments or the federal government. Each source is granted the authority over specific aspects of governance and the people by the constitution, and therefore maintains only records pertaining to those specific aspects. For instance, information relating to records on immigration, federal court proceedings, federal criminal justice records, bankruptcy, financial information of many organizations and institutions are under the authority of federal government agencies.
History Of FOIA Laws: The United States of America introduced the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, and since then every state in the union has followed suit with their own sets of legislation. These laws define how records are to be recorded and shared with the public and guarantees the right of citizens to access and study government-created records.
What Public Records are Held by the States and Local Government
In accordance with the powers granted to the States government by the constitution, U.S state has powers to make laws relating to its citizens and residents and therefore collect and retain information on them. Most records relating to persons, ownership of property, criminal history (arrests, criminal convictions) civil court records, birth, death marriage, divorce records, professional licenses are filed, collected, maintained, and eventually disposed of at the state and local level. The state and local government also maintain administrative information relating to their activities including financial budget and expenditures, environmental impacts, assessment plans, and other related issues.
How to Find States Public Records?
Step 1. Determine the type of record required.
Records are classified based on the type of information they contain. An interested person would have to know the information they seek and how such information is classified. Examples include:
- Vital records. Vital records contain information on life events such as birth, marriage, and death of a person. They are considered public records and may be viewed or obtained, usually at the state or county level.
- Criminal History Records. These contain information accessible to the public on a person’s arrest, conviction, incarceration, and probation. The state generally maintains criminal history records, however, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also maintains the Interstate Identification Index (III), an index database of all fingerprints and information of persons arrested in various locations including those arrested by the local county sheriff's office. The database is made accessible to law enforcement agencies.
- Court records are public records maintained by the office of the Court clerk and contain the docket, documents filed and other information relating to all cases filed, tried, and determined before the court including divorce records, civil and criminal trials. Court records may also include court administrative information.
Step 2. Determine the government agency in the custody of the public records.
For instance, vital records are maintained by the Department of Public Health or its equivalent in each state. Arrests records by the state police department are kept by the state police and the sheriff’s office maintains local arrest records within their counties. Inmate records are kept by the State’s Department of Corrections or its equivalent in each State. Information about state education is maintained by each State’s department of education. Environmental information such as the content of the tap water in each state is maintained by the Environmental Protection Agencies and administrative records of each state’s department and agencies can be obtained from that specific organization, agency or department.
Step 3. Determine accessibility.
An interested person must know whether or not the information or record they seek is considered public records or excluded from public access. Exempted records may be categorized as those accessible to authorized persons and those that are sealed by the order of the court. Examples of records accessible to authorized persons are adoption records, birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce certificates. Those authorized persons such as the individual themselves or immediate relatives may obtain those records at a fee. Records sealed by order of court are usually juvenile records or criminal records of an individual. In some states, sealed records are still accessible to law enforcement agencies but not the general public, in other states, once sealed, criminal records remain sealed unless reopened by another court order. Some information is automatically categorized as private or publicly restricted information, such as medical records, information on minors, records of mental illness, and in some cases, information on the victims of a crime.
Step 4. Determine the Availability.
Records may be available online. Many states and Counties in the US now provide online access to public records and an interested person may view and obtain such records by following the requirements for online records access. Some records are excluded from online access or are not available online. The inquirer may have to visit the location of the government authority to obtain those records.
What Types of Information is disclosed in Public Records?
Public records on individuals may contain personal information on those individuals including their:
- Date of birth and age
- Physical description (hair color, gender, eye color, height, race, weight, body markings)
- Location ( prison, state, county of residence)
- Family history (marriage, divorce, separation, children)
- Address or contact information
- Social security numbers
Personal information may be found on criminal records, court records, driver’s registration records, birth records, voters registration records, professional licensing for doctors, lawyers, accountants, and others. These are all records maintained at the state level and may be accessible as public records with some restrictions. Public records may also contain:
- Government administrative information, including information on government policies, actions, decisions, meetings, communication, employees, and elected or appointed public officers.
- Property records contain information on the ownership and value of land and other property.
How To Obtain State Public Records
Each state has a public records request process that an inquirer is advised to follow. Although each state differs, the rules are usually simple to eliminate the bureaucracy that may discourage or deter public requests for information. Rules for obtaining public information may be found on each state’s official website, County website, or official websites of each state agency. Depending on the public records of interest, an inquirer may be able to view the information they need online on platforms affiliated with the government such as PACER, for example, for court records. The inquirer may be required to subscribe or sign up to view and obtain the information. A visit to the office of the records custodian such as the office of the court clerk may be necessary to obtain some types of records. An inquirer may also be required to complete several steps when requesting records including
- Submit a request in writing. An inquirer may write a formal letter addressed to the government agency of interest stating, requesting, and describing the records of interest or complete an FOI form provided by the agency for submission of a public records request. Requests may be sent by certified mail, delivered in person, by email, regular mail, or by fax.
- Provide a valid identification for records on self. The agency may require identification to confirm that the inquirer is, in fact, the person whose information appears on the records requested. The inquirer may also be required to submit a notarized statement signed under penalty of perjury confirming the inquirer is who they say they are.
- Pay fees. FOI laws permit government agencies to charge fees for copies of public records made for inquirers. The fee may differ from one agency, county, board, town, state to the other. Inquirers may apply for fee waivers. The government agency would usually provide information on who may apply for a fee waiver. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would generally waive the fees for non-commercial use if the inquirer can show that the information requested is in the interest of the public and would contribute significantly to the general public’s understanding of the operation and activities of the government.
Can Public Records Request Be Rejected?
In some instances, record custodians may deny a public record request. However, rejections are determined by several factors such as the type of records requested, the law and the agency. Generally, the government agency does not have to disclose any information if:
- The information is exempted by the FOI laws from disclosure.
- It includes personal information that would violate a person’s privacy
- The inquirer has not reasonably described the information they need. The government agency may ask that they provide some description to help streamline the search for the records of interest.
- Information requested, if released would hinder an ongoing law enforcement investigation.
- The request is from a non-resident. States like Virginia, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Alabama, Delaware, Georgia have specific clauses in the FOI laws on the availability of records to their citizens. The Supreme court in McBurney V. Young has also upheld the decision of the Virginia State government to deny a request for tax information by a non-resident and a request for information on a Virginia resident by a former resident.
It is important to note the freedom of information is not a constitutional right and each state has determined in its laws, the extent to which it will accommodate a public records request. The inquirer has the responsibility to determine if they are eligible to seek the information from a particular state, for instance, based on their place of residence, if they have complied with the requirements for obtaining the information and if they understand their responsibility, such as declaring that they do not intend to use the information collected for commercial purposes unless duly authorized to do so.
Finding State Public Record Laws
Most U.S states have local versions of the Freedom of Information Act, which govern how public records are stored and accessed by residents. These versions may be described as open government, open records, open meetings, or sunshine laws.
Alabama Public Record Laws
Alaska Public Record Laws
Arizona Public Record Laws
Arkansas Public Record Laws
Open record laws for obtaining public information are defined in the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
California Public Record Laws
Open record laws were signed into the legislature with the California Public Records Act (PRA),
Colorado Public Record Laws
Connecticut Public Record Laws
Public records laws are anchored in the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.
Delaware Public Record Laws
Public records statutes are established in the Delaware Freedom of Information Act (Title 29, Chapter 100)
District of Columbia Public Record Laws
Laws governing access to public records in Washington D.C are set by the DC Freedom of Information Act
Florida Public Record Laws
Georgia Public Record Laws
Local FOIA laws in the state of Georgia are established with the Georgia Open Records Act
Hawaii Public Record Laws
Freedom of information statutes and public records law are governed by the Hawaii Uniform Information Practices Act
Idaho Public Record Laws
Public records laws were signed into legislation via the Idaho Public Records Act
Illinois Public Record Laws
Public records laws are provided by the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (5 ILCS 140)
State’ public records laws are provided by the Indiana Access to Public Records Act
Iowa Public Record Laws
Access to information and public records laws in the state of Iowa are established under the Iowa Open Records Law
Kansas Public Record Laws
Access to open information and public records Laws are defined under the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA)
Kentucky Public Record Laws
Public records laws are guaranteed for residents of Kentucky under the Kentucky Open Records Act (KRS 61.870 to KRS 61.884)
Louisiana Public Record Laws
Local freedom of information laws for Louisiana are established for residents under the state’s Public Records law
Maine Public Record Laws
Local public record laws for citizens of Maine are established under the Maine Freedom of Access Act (FOAA)
Maryland Public Record Laws
Open record laws in the state of Maryland are defined by the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA)
Michigan Public Record Laws
Minnesota Public Record Laws
Public record laws in the state of Minnesota are governed by the Minnesota Data Practices Act
Mississippi Public Record Laws
Missouri Public Record Laws
Statutes governing the right to access public record information are defined in Missouri’s Sunshine Laws
Montana Public Record Laws
Nebraska Public Record Laws
Nevada Public Record Laws
New Hampshire Public Record Laws
Open information and public records statutes are defined in the New Hampshire Right to Know Law
New Jersey Public Record Laws
Freedom of information laws are defined in the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA)
New Mexico Public Record Laws
Access to records in the state of New Mexico is governed by the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act
New York Public Record Laws
North Carolina Public Record Laws
Local FOIA laws in North Carolina are defined by the state’s public records laws (Section § 132-6) and open meetings laws
North Dakota Public Record Laws
Ohio Public Record Laws
Access to public records in Ohio is codified in the Ohio Open Records Law and Ohio Open Meetings Law
Oklahoma Public Record Laws
Statutes governing public access to records and information in Oklahoma is set by the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act and Oklahoma Open Records Act
Oregon Public Record Laws
Pennsylvania Public Record Laws
Rhode Island Public Record Laws
South Carolina Public Record Laws
Freedom of information and public records laws for the residents of South Carolina are set under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act and South Carolina Open Meetings Law
South Dakota Public Record Laws
Access to information for South Dakota citizens is codified by the South Dakota Sunshine Law and South Dakota Open Meetings Laws
Tennessee Public Record Laws
Texas Public Record Laws
Utah Public Record Laws
Public records laws in the state of Utah is defined with the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act
Vermont Public Record Laws
Virginia Public Record Laws
Washington Public Record Laws
Information laws are set under the Washington Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act
West Virginia Public Record Laws
Wisconsin Public Record Laws
Wyoming Public Record Laws
Public records laws for accessing records in Wyoming are established under the Wyoming Public Records Act
Types of Public Records
Arrest Records is a term that encompasses many different records pertaining to the criminal justice system. Actual documents named arrest records do not generally exist, so much as they refer to the documentation of a person’s arrest. This means that they usually refer to police reports involving a person’s arrest, but can also extend to inmate records, criminal records, and criminal background checks.
Finding arrest records is typically easy, though they may require some legwork to obtain. The first place to start when looking for arrest records is to contact your local law enforcement agency, or the law enforcement agency that holds jurisdiction in the area where the arrest occurred. Begin by visiting their website, which is easily found with search queries such as “County Sheriff’s Office” or “Springfield City Police Department.” Once on the website, browse through available options to find the records department. This is usually found under categories such as “services” or “records.” Contacting the sheriff’s department via phone or email is also a good way to find the department you’re looking for, especially if the website proves too complicated.
Once you find the records department, there are instructions to follow to obtain your record. Most records are only available during normal business hours such as between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., though these hours may vary. Note that as a government agency, most law enforcement departments will recognize national holidays. It is rare, but occasionally a law enforcement agency will require a search fee that can range from as little as $5 to as much as $70. Usually are also fees for copies of a record or report which cost around 10 cents per page, and a standard upfront charge ranging from between $1 and $10. Digital reports via CD are sometimes available. While their costs are usually larger, no copy fee is required. Be aware that a completed form and picture ID are typically required when obtaining a record.
The easiest way to obtain records, when it is available, is online, though browsable online repositories for records are rare. Still, many law enforcement agencies offer record acquisition through email requests. Finally, if finding the record you want proves difficult or impossible through your local law enforcement, third-party amalgamation websites offer a more user-friendly option. There, you can search with just a name and address of an individual to pull criminal or arrest records for about the same cost as obtaining a single record.
Sex Offender Registry
Sex offenders registries are lists of people that were convicted of sexually explicit crimes. These crimes can range from rape to public indecency, but thanks to Megan’s Law, criminals of this nature are required to keep updated public lists of their residences, identifying features, and names. These lists are usually maintained by law enforcement agencies or their superior offices, are categorized by area and are almost always online. To search for the sex offender registry in your area, simply type in an area you wish to review, followed by “sex offender registry.”
Court records are just that: records filed by a court of law. Whenever a court takes action against an individual, makes a ruling in court, or makes any internal action, there is a record of that action, and it is available to the public. Note that this extends to more than just criminal proceedings. Divorce records, civil action records, and more can be found in courthouses.
Finding court records can be more difficult than finding an arrest record, and this is largely due to the large caseloads that most individual courthouses today face. Just because a person was arrested in one area, county, or municipality does not mean they will be tried there, especially if there is no designated courthouse for that area.
A good place to start when beginning your search for a court record pertaining to an individual’s trial is with the courthouse closest to the law enforcement agency that performed the arrest. This can be done by searching for the area, followed by the search term “courthouse.” From there you can determine the name of the courthouse (usually named after the district it is in such as 71st District Court) which will help in future searches. Once you have the name of the court, go to that court’s website. When you gain access to your court’s record database, you will typically need a case number, the name of one of the parties involved, and a filled-out request form if applicable. Requests are usually delivered via email or by standard mail.
If your court does not offer online record requests, or you prefer to deal with the court directly, you will need to visit the court to make a request. Make sure to have a picture ID, the name of one of the parties involved, the case number, and a check or money order ready for payment. Some courts also accept, credit and debit cards. Most will require a form to be filled out at the time of record request. It’s advisable to call the court prior to visiting for additional required information.
Just like criminal records, websites specializing in court record search exist, and are typically more straightforward than dealing directly with the court. Since most of these sites perform their searches with names rather than requiring specific case numbers, they will typically pull every case in which the person in question was involved.
Public Records encompass the essential happenings in the government and typically include property records, deeds, marriage licenses, birth records, and death records. Unlike court and arrest records, these are documents describing large changes in life rather than breaches of the law. Because of this, they are almost always found at a government center rather than in a courthouse.
To search for records in your county, city, or municipality, search for the record in question followed by the area name. These types of records can sometimes be separated by division within the government center, and because of this, it is often quicker just to search by record type. In certain areas, these divisions are all under one overarching branch called the Clerk of the Courts, Clerk of the Records, or Clerk of the Deeds. Once you found which division holds the record in question, find out if any additional steps are necessary.
Typically, records of this kind are not stored online and must be requested and acquired physically. That said, your government's website may provide some shortcuts. Typically, there is a form involved, which can be printed from the Clerk’s website. Once the form is filled, include any required fees with the letter (or as instructed by the website), and mail the letter to the correct provided address. Requests often take 7-10 business days to process and return.
Occasionally, requests may be available online. These often require the filing out of an online form, payment via a credit or debit card, and space to formally type out the request. Requests in this way are sometimes faster, but 7-10 business days should still be allowed for return.
Finally, in-person requests are available as well. Payment in person may sometimes be restricted to cash or money orders, but often credit and debit cards are accepted. If speed is a factor, in-person requests are usually faster. Fees for these types of records can range from $1 to 65$ for the first search, with additional searches available for a discounted price. Additionally, these records are usually available online through third parties.