Public Records

What is a public record?

A public record refers to a document or a source of information that is accessible to the general public, rather than kept private or confidential. Public records are often documents that record an individual or group’s interaction with one or more government agencies, such as a marriage record, or items related to one’s criminal history, but can also refer to something as simple as a phone number or former address. 

The 1967 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) cemented the legal status of public records in the United States by requiring all federal agencies to release all non-exempt documents to citizens through submitting a public record request. Though the act only applies to records held by federal agencies, many state and local governments followed suit with similar laws freeing up records held by state and local authorities, making them public information, as well.

Despite the fact that the FOIA allows the general public to freely access a wide range of records, the overwhelming majority of FOIA requests are made by businesses, legal firms, and news organizations. 

Many people are ignorant of both the extent of the public records accessible to them, as well as the number of records containing their personal information that can be accessed by any individual or organization, upon request.   

Examples of public records

A wide range of documents and pieces of information are public records, including:

  • Criminal records
  • Marriage certificates
  • Birth certificates
  • Court proceedings
  • Divorce records
  • Death certificates
  • DMV files
  • Licensing records 
  • Business records
  • Property records
  • Change of address forms
  • Voting records
  • Arrest records
  • Historical records
  • Conviction records
  • Meeting transcripts
  • Sex offender registry
  • Laws and regulations   
  • Government contracts
  • Government budgets 
  • Political campaign financial records 
  • Statistical Data

What is not a public record? 

While many types of documents fall under the umbrella of public records, others are expressly private and not accessible to the general public. Here are some examples: 

  • Tax information and returns
  • School records
  • Juvenile court records
  • Public library records
  • Social welfare information
  • Medical records
  • Confidential marriage certificates (available by request)

Public Records FAQs

Where are public records available? 

Although public records are–by definition–available to the public, finding certain documents is a  challenge, and visiting a handful of government offices to hunt down different types of public records may be necessary. 

This is because rather than being stored in a single location, public records are housed in the offices of a number of government agencies, depending on the type of document. Below is a guide to where you’ll find different types of public records. 

  • Vital records office, county clerk’s office, and county courthouse – birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates, voting records, court proceedings, divorce records, public property records, and real estate records
  • State and local police departments – criminal records, police reports, arrest and incident reports 
  • Department of motor vehicles office – driver’s license information, special vehicle licenses, and occupational licenses  
  • National Archives – historical documents, signed laws 
  • Federal Election Commission – campaign finance and individual contribution records 
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation – agency policy statements, criminal records, manuals, and investigation reports

How do I make a public records request?

The process for making a public records request varies between agencies, as do the associated request forms, but you should generally follow the same basic steps. 

First, make a list of the records that you are looking for. Next, write down the name of the office or agency that you believe is in possession of each record. Then, write a formal letter to each office stating the record(s) that you are looking for, and include your name, address, and other contact information. For the quickest results, you should deliver your request letter in person, but if that proves difficult, you can also mail the letter to the necessary office. There will likely be a fee involved in obtaining the requested public records. 

Requestors should be sure to be as specific as possible when submitting their requests. Overly broad or difficult to understand requests may be ignored or rejected outright. Also, be prepared to wait for your requested records, as government offices often take longer to process requests than commercial businesses. 

How can I find public records for free on the internet?

The internet is a useful source for obtaining public records, allowing people to find a variety of documents in one place without visiting half a dozen different government offices. There are scores of sites that search state and federal databases for all types of records, including arrest and warrant records, court cases, vital records like birth and death certificates, and more, delivering them all in one place for the person performing the search. 

However, almost all of the sites will ask you to register, enter your credit card information, and pay a fee in order to view the results of a search. Getting all the public records under your name in one place without multiple trips to various government offices is convenient, but be prepared to pay for it, as there aren’t really any free background check companies. Sites advertising free background checks or free public records searches inevitably place a paywall between you and the search results. 

What is PACER?

Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an electronic public access service maintained by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts that citizens can use to obtain docket and case information from federal courts, district courts, and bankruptcy courts that are public records. The index of court records is massive, containing over 500 million documents in many different databases.

Registering for PACER is free for everyone, however, using the service comes with a price. Since Congress never applied the funds to allow for free access to PACER’s database, the service must be supported through user fees. Obtaining documents costs $0.10 per page, although the price of a single document is capped at $3. If a user would like PACER to perform a search on their behalf, the price is $30 per search, even if the search comes up empty. 

Yet, unless a user is accessing dozens of court documents, they may be able to find what they need free of charge: as of January 2020, fees are waived for all users whose quarterly usage is below $30. According to PACER.gov, this applies to over 75 percent of the service’s users.    

Learn More About Public Records In Each State