Public records in Pennsylvania are subject to the “right to know” law, which is part of the so-called “sunshine laws,” which in turn fall under the Freedom of Information Act. What this all really means is that, with the exception of birth and death records, information on marriages (since 1885), divorces (since 1804), wills, deeds, and naturalizations are available at local courthouses. In the case of birth and death records, they are civil records and have been registered since 1906. These certified records can be obtained only by family members or by someone with power of attorney. These are maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Division of Vital Records, and may be ordered via mail, online, or in-person.
With the amount of access available, there are also exceptions which are made to ensure an individual’s privacy, and these are:
- Information that may lead to a loss of funds for the state
- Information that could cause physical, emotional or financial harm to an individual
- Information that would endanger the safety of a building
Some examples would be: Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, internal employee numbers, home, cellular, or personal phone numbers, personal financial information, home addresses of law enforcement officials or judges, children’s personal information, etc.
Public records may be sought after for several reasons under state law including but not limited to business interest (for example if a person wants to find out more about particular business before attempting employment), personal research (such as wanting to trace back ancestry, or see when a person’s family settled in a particular county in Pennsylvania), or information gathering for a school/degree project. In short, public records simply allow for learning more about a specific person or issue and can furnish a wide variety of detailed information.Types of Public Records
There are different types of public records, including, but not limited to:
- Marriage and divorce records
- Land records
- Property tax and ownership records
- Geographical information records (specific to each county covering things like, municipalities, census blocks, zoning, voting districts and high school attendance)
- Records regarding civil and family court
- Domestic relations and child support
- Professional licensing
- Estate records
- Sexual offender records (county only, not statewide)
- Business entities
- Incarceration records
Before diving into your own public records research, not that, legally, no record keeping body can ask why information on a particular record is needed, nor what you intend to do with the information. Nor can any public body bar access to the information on the grounds that the requester is not a citizen of Pennsylvania. If they are a legal citizen of the United States, or even hold a green card for legal immigration or work purposes, they must be granted access to the information they’re seeking. In addition, no state or local agency can limit the amount of requests for information one might make, nor can they impose additional fees beyond what they initially set for copying the records in question.Getting Started
The best way to start a record search is to first pick the county you are interested in and have an idea of exactly what it is you’re looking for. The best way to do this is to first jot down in general terms the type of data you would be interested in. This allows you to have a focus for beginning your search and will help you be more efficient with your time.
The first thing you’ll want to do after this is to contact the local county clerk’s office. As one would expect, there is a wealth of information available and they will help pinpoint the relevant records and guide the requester through the confusing array of information. Another recommended option is to also contact the specific county’s recorder office. This office keeps records pertaining to land, such as liens, mortgages, deeds and so on. Something else to note is that records here are usually kept in a variety of different formats (depending on age), like microfiche, microfilm, image, book, and so on.
Another place to begin a records search would be the local Department of Health. This office keeps records such as birth, death, marriage, and divorce. Requests by fax, mail, phone and email are honored but due to earlier mentioned privacy issues, may only be made by next of kin (with proof) or the person whose name appears on the record. There is also to option to have the record copy certified.Final Tips
Starting a public records search can seem like an insurmountable and very time consuming task. However, if the person doing the research has taken the time to map out in their mind (or better yet, on paper) exactly what they’re looking for, along with details like the county of Pennsylvania they’re most interested in, relevant offices and courts, etc., they should have no trouble getting the information they seek.
And there you have it, using the information above, you can quickly identify and gather the records pertinent to your overall goal. Remember that no agency has the right to ever ask why you need a particular record, and if they refuse access to what is clearly a public record, you have legal recourse and they can be fined. One last thing to note is that you must have enough time set aside to gather the records needed. While the internet has made many tasks almost instant, collecting public records can sometimes be time consuming, so allow ample time to avoid surprises.