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 Montana’s public records law?
The Montana Public Records Act guarantees the public’s right to request and access public records held by state and local government bodies. Anyone can request public records in the state without stating their intent with the record, However, there is a restriction on the commercial use of mailing lists. No specific time limit is given for how long a government body has to respond to a public records request.
Examples of Montana Public Records
Montana public records include, but are not limited to:
- Criminal records
- Death certificates
- Court cases
- Marriage records
- Divorce records (limited information)
- Licensing records
- Business records
- Historical records
- Government contracts
- Voting records
The following are NOT public records in Montana:
- Juvenile criminal and court records
- Birth certificates
- Library records
- Medical records
- Student transcripts
- Social welfare information
- Sealed records
- Tax returns
- Unpublished research and commercial data
Where can I access Montana public records?
- Montana Secretary of State: Business Search – Search for a Montana business to learn its registration date, entity type, principal address, and current status. Both active and inactive businesses can be found in the database.
- Montana Supreme Court: Case Search – Search for information about active and closed cases brought before the Montana Supreme Court.
- Montana Supreme Court: Public View Docket Search – Access active and closed Supreme Court dockets. Users can search by party name, attorney, or case number.
- Montana Judicial Branch Court Locator – Select a county or city from the drop-down menus to find the contact information of its court. As Montana does not have a search tool for court records other than those of the Supreme Court, contacting the court clerk of the court where the case originated and making a public records request is the best way to access information on a specific case.
- Criminal History Online Public Record Search – A fee-based search tool provided by the Montana Department of Justice that anyone can use to search Montana’s database of criminal history information. One search costs $20. While not required to use the service, registration costs $100 a year and grants users access to all Montana eGovernment services.
- Montana Historical Society: Archival Collections – The Montana Historical Society is the official state archives for historical public records. The physical building is located in Helena, but much of the catalog is accessible online in digital form.
Sex Offender Information
- Montana Sexual or Violent Offender Registry – Maintained by the Montana Department of Justice, the state’s sexual or violent offender registry is available online and can be searched by anyone. Users can search the registry by name or neighborhood, or perform a search of the database of non-compliant offenders.
- Montana DPHHS: Birth/Death Certificate Application – Although only authorized persons are allowed to request birth certificates, other vital records like death certificates, marriage records, and divorce records are considered public records in Montana. Individuals can order birth and death certificates by mail from the Office of Vital Records, or online through VitalChek.
- Montana Judicial Branch Court Locator – Contact the district court clerk in the county where the marriage/divorce occurred to request a marriage or divorce record.