If you are like most people, you might not have been aware that public records even exist. However, if you are working on legal matters, genealogy research, government policy, or getting a copy of a marriage certificate you might find yourself looking for public records. In fact, virtually everyone will end up looking for them at some point in their life. There are a wide variety of documents and information that can be unearthed through public records requests. While the methods for retrieving documents from the government differ for the various agencies, there are some common traits that apply to all public records. These are some common questions associated with accessing public records:
- What are public records? Public records are any information or documents that are made by a government agency or officer and are required by law to be kept and maintained. They are also any records that are filed with a government agency or office. Most public records are available to anyone that requests them but some have eligibility requirements or are confidential.
- Are public records free? There are many types of public records that are available for free at the federal, state, county and city level. Some examples of free public records are census data, property information, tax liens and judgments, criminal records, bankruptcies and court records. Even though these types of records are free they can often be difficult to find as they are typically available at a local government agency. There are many private companies and websites that aggregate public records from a wide variety of sources and charge a fee to provide access to all of them from one search.
- Are marriage and divorce records public? Marriage licenses and divorces are public records and are available to anyone that requests them. Divorce records can be sealed under certain situations. In the case where they are sealed they will no longer be available to the general public.
Marriage, Divorce, Birth and Death Records
It would appear that, from beginning to end, all of the biggest events in your life are also part of public records. New births are always reported by the hospitals or professionals who deliver the child, while coroners offices assign death certificates. These records assist with census data and other commonly used statistics. Additionally, birth and death records help states avoid having unidentified residents in their records or on their social programs. Marriage licenses are also kept as a matter of public record. These types of documents can be extremely helpful when researching your family tree and history, as tracking down past family members and their spouses would be a real challenge without them. Birth, death, marriage and divorce records are typically managed and made available at the local county clerk's office where the event took place. States will also often have a department of health that can provide access to older vital records. In addition to physical locations, many states are putting or have put their databases online for ease of access.
Court and Criminal Records
While certain high profile trials may have access restrictions during their actual proceedings, the happenings of a courthouse are a matter of public record. Dockets, or summaries of a court case and its courtroom proceedings, are available for perusal after the case is closed. In the same way, records about defendants in such cases are available. Criminal records are also available through courthouse and police records databases, and list out any prior convictions or warrants for an individual. Some convictions, if overturned or if certain circumstances or time limits are met, can be expunged from a record, or at least sealed from public records and criminal background checks. Many online services offer criminal background and record checks for a free, but this information is usually availabe at a local government office or courthouse and can be obtained for free.
Property and Land Records
One of the earliest forms of public record keeping we know of pertained to property records. Once someone had purchased a plot of land, they wanted who it belonged to be an official record. Not much has changed, and property records pertaining to public lots, buildings or establishments are readily available. In addition, if a building or area was commissioned by the city itself, or by any public representative, records of the communications setting up the property as well as the contract terms themselves will, in most cases, be matters of public record. While private house sales and ownership are not subject to public records law, any real estate appraisals done on a property are public record (to presumably ensure honesty in sales negotiations and expectations). County or city assessors typcially maitain and provide access to deeds, assessments and property tax records.
Any official meeting of elected officials or public representative bodies is going to be covered by public record law as well. This doesn't just include mayoral and governor's offices, but can extend to other state representatives, town hall meetings, school district or school board meetings, and more. Accountability is one of the cornerstones of why we have public records, and these types of records certainly further those ends. To obtain these records, you should contact the specific office of the official or group you are interested in. In many cases, the forms that these offices use are now available online, so you can submit a web form or fill out a word/PDF document and email it to someone rather than having to print, fill out, and take or mail a form in. Government public records are typcially regulated by a federal or state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Some of the information available through public records requests is directly meant to be available for general safety reasons. One such example is the sex offender registry, which is the reason that you can now easily see online how close you live to any registered sex offenders. Other types of protective information might include things like consumer safety reports and recalls surrounding certain products or materials.
When approaching any office about their public records, be as polite as possible; too often, reporters and public records requesters approach with the wrong attitude and immediately put public offices on the defensive. If you do run into any trouble, refer to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which outlines documents that public offices need to make available when presented with a formal request. Additionally, your own state will likely have its own specific freedom of information laws with its own stipulations.
Be prepared to pay as well. Public records are meant to be viewable for free, but reproduction usually comes with a cost. typically, this is not very much (5 to 10 cents per copied/printed sheet). In some cases, however, exorbitant fees have been used to discourage public records requests. Also, there are many private aggregators that charge a convenience fee to quickly access public records from a wide variety of different sources.