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 Pennsylvania’s public records law?
The Pennsylvania Right to Know Law guarantees the public the right of access to public records held by government agencies at all levels in the state. Although the law was previously considered one of the most restrictive in the country due to its exclusion of government records, a new law passed on January 1, 2009, clarified that all government records are public records, except in the case that an agency can prove that they are exempt.
Under the law, any citizen of the United States may make a public records request in the state without declaring a statement of purpose, and there is no restriction placed on the use of public records. Public bodies have a five-day limit to respond to a records request.
Examples of Pennsylvania Public Records
Pennsylvania public records include, but are not limited to:
- Criminal records
- Court cases
- Marriage records
- Divorce records
- Licensing records
- Business records
- Historical records
- Government contracts
- Voting records
The following are NOT public records in Pennsylvania:
- Birth certificates
- Death certificates
- Investigative records
- Accident reports
- Library records
- Medical records
- Student transcripts
- Social welfare information
- Sealed records
- Tax returns
- Unpublished research and commercial data
Where can I access Pennsylvania public records?
- Pennsylvania Department of State: Business Record Searches – Search the Bureau of Corporations and Charitable Organizations database to learn key information about a Pennsylvania-based business or non-profit organization, including its formation date, address, entity type, and current status.
- The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania: Public Records – A web portal with several useful links for looking up Pennsylvania public records, including a court case information and docket sheet search tool, collections of statistical data, and collections of detailed financial records.
- PATCH (Pennsylvania Access to Criminal History) – A website that can be used by the public to look up the Pennsylvania criminal history record of anyone. Each search request costs $22 and is non-refundable, even if the search yields no results.
- Pennsylvania State Archives – Based in Harrisburg, the State Archives is the central repository for historical public records in the Commonwealth, and also presides over a large collection of relevant historical artifacts and audiovisual materials. Many materials are available online in digital form.
Sex Offender Information
- Pennsylvania State Police Megan’s Law Website – A site maintained by the State Police that the public may use to search for registered sex offenders in the state by name, city, or mile radius. Additionally, there are lists of non-compliant and transient offenders.
- Pennsylvania Vital Records – Although they are not public records in the state, authorized persons may order certified copies of birth and death certificates from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Health Statistics and Registries.
- Pennsylvania Orphans’ Court Clerks Directory – A directory of Pennsylvania county court clerks, where marriage and divorce records can be obtained in the state. While marriage and divorce records are public records, certified copies are only available to subjects of the record and authorized persons.