What are public records?
Public records are documents held by the government that members the general public has the right to access and view. They may exist as tangible paper copies of records held by in a government repository or as electronic records within an online database.
Common types of public records include criminal records, court records, and vital records such as birth and death certificates. Public records can be accessed by the general public by making a public records request to the appropriate government agency.
Which federal law deals with public records in the United States?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1967 is the major federal law regarding public records in the United States. The FOIA requires federal government agencies to release documents to the public when they make a records request, as long as the record in question doesn’t fall under one of nine exemptions outlined in the law. However, most people do not take advantage of the FOIA, and most record requests are made by businesses, law firms, and professionals.
Generally, if public records are to be used for a commercial purpose, the requester of the record must notify the agency of their intent while submitting the request.
What is the California law governing public records?
The California Public Records Act (CPRA) states that “information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in the state”.
The California public records law is similar to the FOIA except that it pertains to state and local agencies. California residents should not have trouble accessing public records if they make a request to the appropriate agency.
Examples of California Public Records
California public records include, but are not limited to:
- Birth certificates
- Death certificates
- Court cases
- Marriage records
- Divorce records
- Licensing records
- Business records
- Historical records
- Government contracts
- Voting records
The following are NOT public records in California:
- Criminal records (not belonging to the requester)
- Juvenile criminal and court records
- Library information
- Medical records
- Student transcripts
- Social welfare information
- Sealed records
- Tax returns
- Unpublished research and commercial data
Where can I access California public records?
- California Secretary of State: Business Search – Performing a search with this tool will tell you the registration date and current status of a California business.
- California Secretary of State: Business Entities Records Request – Request certificates, status reports, and other business records.
- California Courts: Request Forms – Submit the form accessible on this page for judicial records maintained by California appellate courts and the Judicial Council of California. However, it can not be used for court records held by Superior Courts in the state.
- California Courts: Find Your Court – In California, the best method of accessing a specific case record is by making a request to the clerk of court in the county where the case originated. You can find the contact information of the court you are looking for by typing in the city or zip code. Alternatively, you can choose the “View All Courts” option.
- California Courts: Case Information – A database of California Supreme Court and Court of Appeal case information that is updated hourly during office hours on business days.
- California Department of Justice: Fingerprint Background Checks – You can obtain a copy of your California criminal history record by following the procedure outlined on this page. Requesters are required to have their fingerprints taken at a live scan site.
- California Police Department Directory – Another way of obtaining criminal history information is by making a record request to your local police department. This is a directory containing the contact information of every police department in the state.
Sex Offender Information
- California Megan’s Law Website – Maintained by the State of California Department of Justice, the California Sex Offender Registry can be searched by members of the general public. Users can search by name, area, or by the GPS location of their device used to perform the search.
- California Department of Public Health Vital Records (CDPH) – Maintains California birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, and divorce certificates. Certified copies of certificates are available only to subjects of the record and family members. However, information copies are available to members of the general public.