Journalists, writers, genealogists, history students and academics are some of the people who need regular access to public records as part of their job. Most of us, regardless of our profession, have at one point or another needed to get a certified copy of some kind of government document, so it’s safe to say that most of us are or will be users of a public records system. Since there is no federal centralized legislation or organization managing public records access in the US, it is essential to familiarize yourself as much as possible with how access to public records is regulated in each state, county and city.
Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Records
If you need a copy of a birth certificate, marriage license, divorce decree or death certificate you will most likely be working with the Florida Department of Health (DOH). The DOH is one of the most valuable resources in the state for official public records. Records requests can be made online, in person or via mail. Here are some of the most common questions and answers about the type of records the DOH is responsible for:
- Are marriage records public in Florida? Marriage and divorce records are public information in the state of Florida and are available to anyone that requests them at the DOH website, in person or by mail.
- Are birth records public in Florida? Birth records are available to parents, legal guardians and to people that have been granted access by a court order in Florida. You can fill out an online application form requesting a birth certificate copy at the DOH website providing proof of eligibility, such as being the registrant on the certificate (for birth records), being the parent, guardian or legal representative of the registrant, or supplying a court order that makes you eligible for access to the record.
- Are death records public in Florida? Anyone can request a death certificate in Florida without the "cause of death" at the DOH website. To get a certificate that includes the "cause of death" requires meeting eligibility requirements (spouse, relative, legal representative, etc.). After 50 years have passed from the date the death was recorded, the "cause of death" becomes public record and is available to anyone.
For a driver’s license check you can visit the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and just type in the number of the license you need to check. For a criminal record check, you need the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. On their website, you can access a criminal history database that you don’t need to prove your eligibility for. The fee for this search is automatically deducted from your credit card and the results do not include certified criminal history records. This means you can check the criminal background of a family member or an employee, for instance, without needing anything else but your name, address and credit card information.
The Division of Corporations at the Florida Department of State is the place to go to make a check on liens, business entity records, fictitious names, and UCC information. For access to records of mortgage brokers, lenders and other financial services providers, you need the Florida Office of Financial Regulation. Since a lot of the information contained in these records is confidential, when requested, it could be either redacted to withhold the confidential details or withheld as a whole. The records that are freely available on the website include lists of financial services firms, final orders, and non-sensitive information about loan originators.
If you need information about offenders, you need the Florida Department of Corrections website. There you can find records about inmate population, escapees, inmate release, and offenders under release. For records concerning stolen vehicles, boats, vehicle and boat parts and number plates, as well as lists of missing and wanted persons, you should visit the Florida Crime Information Center at the Department of Law Enforcement website. The Center warns that not all information on these subjects is available to the public and that you will need to contact the local law enforcement agency if you suspect there are inaccuracies in the information you have received on the website.
Official records are available at local offices across the state. It’s very useful to start at the local county office which is where you can find all sorts of records such as property tax and ownership records, and GIS/mapping; civil, criminal and probate dockets; vital records, including birth certificates and marriage and divorce records; court records; traffic records; corrections records, as well as missing persons/vehicles lists; and any other type of information that has been made available to the general public or eligible individuals.
The custodian of historical records in the state of Florida is the State Archives at the Department of State. This is the record repository that aids the work of historians and other researchers, providing an extensive database of local government records, private manuscripts, genealogies, photographs, etc. The documents can be copied on site, except in cases when copying threatens to damage the original.
Florida Public Records Laws
Florida has a long history of having an open records policy. This started back in 1909, when the state adopted Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes, also called the Public Records Law. It ensures that any records that a government agency receives or produces during the course of its work are public records, unless they are specifically exempted by the state legislature. A Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was passed in 1967, making most meetings of government agencies at the state and local level available to anyone that makes a request. The Attorney General’s office regularly releases a Government-in-the-Sunshine manual, updated annually, that provides comprehensive guidelines for working with public information in the state.
Florida is pretty dedicated to maintaining its reputation of being a very open state when it comes to public information, making sure anyone needing access to such records has, in some cases, more than one access route. This access is as convenient as possible, and the records available are well maintained and are usually up to date.