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 are the New York laws governing public records?
New York’s public records law is the New York Freedom of Information Law, which was first passed in 1974, repealed and replaced in 1977, and then amended in 1982, 2005, and 2008.
The New York Freedom of Information Law defines a public record as “any information kept, held, filed, produced, or reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever.”
The law entitles anyone to make a public records request in the State of New York, typically without stating a specific purpose. While agencies may deny requests for lists if they are to be used for commercial or fundraising purposes, once a record has been obtained, it can be used in any way the holder of the record sees fit.
Additionally, the law sets a five-day limit for an agency to respond to a written public records request.
Examples of New York Public Records
New York State public records include, but are not limited to:
- Election results
- Court cases
- Marriage records
- Divorce records
- Licensing records
- Business records
- Historical records
- Government contracts
- Voting records
The following are NOT public records in New York:
- Criminal records of other individuals
- Birth certificates
- Death certificates
- 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 New York public records?
- New York Division of Corporations, State Records & UCC: Corporation and Business Entity Search – Search a New York business to learn its formation date, address, and current status.
- New York City Mayor’s Office of Contracts – Find information on New York City contracts and contractors.
- New York State Supreme Court and the County Clerk of New York: Supreme Court Records On-Line Library – A free searchable database of New York Supreme Court records.
- Nycourts.gov: Courts – Find the contact information of every court in the state. Contacting a court directly and making a records request is the only way to obtain detailed court case information.
- New York Division of Criminal Justice Services: Criminal History Records, Background Checks – Although the criminal history record information of others is not made available online by the NY DCJS, one can request their own New York State criminal history by following the procedure outlined on this page.
- New York State Archives – Maintains a collection of over 250 million historical public records dating back to the 1600s that are accessible to the general public. The Archives is located in Albany, but many records can be accessed online.
Sex Offender Information
- New York Sex Offender Registry – The state’s sex offender registry is maintained by the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services and is made available online to be searched by the general public. Users can search by name or area.
- New York State Department of Health: Vital Records – Order birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates through the New York Department of Health. For most types of records, ordering copies is restricted to the subjects of the record and family members.