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 Rhode Island’s public records law?
The Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act guarantees the public the right to access public records held by government agencies at all levels in the state. The law defines public records as all documents, regardless of physical form, that relate to the business of a government agency.
In Rhode Island, anyone can make a public records request without declaring a statement of purpose, and the main restriction on the use of records is that they may not be used for commercial solicitation. Under the law, agencies have a 10-day time limit to respond to a public records request.
Examples of Rhode Island Public Records
Rhode Island public records include, but are not limited to:
- Criminal records
- Court cases
- Divorce records
- Licensing records
- Business records
- Historical records
- Government contracts
- Voting records
The following are NOT public records in Rhode Island:
- Birth certificates
- Death certificates
- Marriage records
- Library records
- Medical records
- Student transcripts
- Social welfare information
- Sealed records
- Tax returns
- Unpublished research and commercial data
Where can I access Rhode Island public records?
- Rhode Island Department of State: Search the Corporate Database – Choose from eight different search options to look up a Rhode Island-based business and learn key information about it, including its formation date, entity type, principal address, current status, and more.
- Rhode Island Judiciary: Access to Case Information – Search a comprehensive database of Rhode Island court documents and case information. The Public Portal contains Rhode Island Supreme Court, Superior Court, District Court, Family Court, Traffic Tribunal, and Workers’ Compensation Court records.
- Rhode Island Attorney General: Background Checks – A page with information on how to request a criminal history background check in Rhode Island, which can be done in person or by mail. If a person wishes to obtain the criminal history record of a person other than themself, they must acquire a signed and notarized release form from the subject. A single state criminal background check costs $5.
- Rhode Island State Archives – Located in Providence, the State Archives houses a collection of over 10 million historical state documents, letters, photographs, and other historical information dating back to 1638. A wealth of material is available online in digital form.
Sex Offender Information
- Rhode Island Sex Offender Community Notification Unity – Browse lists of Level II and Level III sex offenders residing in Rhode Island. The site also gives the option of listing offenders by town or by zip code.
- Rhode Island Department of Health: Birth, Death, and Marriage Records – Although they are not public records, certified copies of birth certificates, death certificates, and marriage records can be obtained through the Rhode Island Vital Records Office, or the approved 3rd party vendor VitalChek. Divorce records are public records in Rhode Island (although sensitive information may be omitted from the record), but they can only be obtained by contacting the court clerk of the county where the event occurred.