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 Tennessee’s public records law?
The Tennessee Open Records Act guarantees the public the right to request and access public records held by government agencies at all levels in the state. The law defines public records as any document, regardless of form, that is held or produced by a public body that relates to the business of a government agency.
Tennessee citizens can make a public records request without a statement of purpose, and there are no restrictions placed on the use of records in the state. Government agencies have a seven-day time limit to respond to a written public records request.
Examples of Tennessee Public Records
Tennessee public records include, but are not limited to:
- Criminal records
- Birth certificates
- Death certificates
- Court cases
- Marriage records
- Licensing records
- Business records
- Historical records
- Government contracts
- Voting records
The following are NOT public records in Tennessee:
- Juvenile court records
- Library records
- Labor negotiations
- Divorce records less than 50 years old
- Medical records
- Student transcripts
- Social welfare information
- Sealed records
- Tax returns
- Unpublished research and commercial data
Where can I access Tennessee public records?
- Tennessee Secretary of State: Business Information Search – Lookup a Tennessee-based business to access key information about it, including its formation date, business type, principal address, and current status (active or inactive).
- Tennessee Supreme Court: Public Case History – A search tool that can be used to check the status of Tennessee Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and Court of Criminal Appeals cases. Documents are downloadable in PDF format.
- Tennessee Courts: Circuit, Criminal, Chancery & Business Courts – Information on the Tennessee court system and its 31 judicial districts. The site includes contact information for every court clerk in the state.
- Tennessee Secretary of State: Court Records – An online archive of historical court records and Tennessee State Penitentiary inmate lists.
- Tennessee Bureau of Investigation: Background Checks – Information on how to perform a criminal history background check in the state. Members of the general public can perform a background check on any individual online or through the mail for a fee of $29.
- Tennessee State Library and Archives – The State Archives presides over an extensive collection of historical legislative documents, genealogical records, maps, photographs, and other historical artifacts. Much of the collection is available in digital form for online viewing.
Sex Offender Information
- TN.gov: Sex Offender Registry Search – The Tennessee Sex Offender Registry is made available to the public and can be searched by name or geographical location. Individuals can also sign up for email notifications to learn if a registered offender has moved into or out of their area.
- Tennessee Department of Health: Office of Vital Records – Most types of vital records are available to the public in Tennessee, save for divorce records, which are only available to authorized persons. Copies of records can be ordered from the State Office of Vital Records or online through the approved 3rd party vendor, VitalChek.