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 Virginia’s public records law?
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act guarantees the public the right to access public records held by government agencies in Virginia. The law considers public records to be all documents, regardless of form, that are created or held by public bodies relating to public business.
Under the set of laws, any Virginia citizen may make a public records request, yet incarcerated felons are limited in their ability to request records. No statement of purpose is required when requesting a record, and there are no restrictions on the use of records. Public bodies have a 5-day time limit to respond to a public records request.
Examples of Virginia Public Records
Virginia public records include, but are not limited to:
- Criminal records
- Court case information
- Marriage records over 25 years old
- Divorce decrees over 25 years old
- Death records over 25 years old
- Licensing records
- Business records
- Historical records
- Government contracts
- Voting records
The following are NOT public records in Virginia:
- Select criminal investigations
- Marriage records less than 25 years old
- Divorce decrees less than 25 years old
- Birth certificates less than 100 years old
- Death records less than 25 years old
- Attorney-client privilege exemptions
- Library records
- Medical records
- Student transcripts
- Social welfare information
- Sealed records
- Tax returns
- Unpublished research and commercial data
Where can I access Virginia public records?
- Virginia SCC: Clerk’s Information System – Use the Business Entity Search to lookup a Virginia business and learn key information about it, including its formation date, principal office address, entity type, and current status. There’s also a UCC and Federal Lien Search tool.
- Virginia’s Judicial System: Supreme Court of Virginia Case Information – Public access to Supreme Court of Virginia case information, which is searchable by party name or case number.
- VJS: Court of Appeals of Virginia Case Information – Find information on Court of Appeals cases.
- VJS: Circuit Court Case Information – Public access to Virginia circuit court civil and criminal case information.
- VJS: Online Case Information System-Statewide Search – Search a database with records of all of Virginia’s general district courts and a number of circuit courts for information on traffic and criminal cases.
- Virginia State Police: Criminal Record Check – A page describing the procedures for requesting the two available types of Virginia criminal history checks. A fingerprint card is required to request the type of criminal history check open to the general public.
- Library of Virginia – Located in Richmond, the Library of Virginia maintains a large number of collections of formational documents, legislative records, genealogical records, maps, photographs, and other historical material.
- Library of Virginia: Virginia Memory – The Library of Virginia’s extensive digital collections, which are available to the public.
Sex Offender Information
- Virginia Sex Offender Registry – The state’s sex offender registry is available to the public and can be searched by name, zip code, address, county, city, and school. Individuals can also sign up for community notifications to learn if a sex offender has moved into the area.
- Virginia Department of Health: Office of Vital Records – Although most vital records in Virginia are not open to the public for a time period of at least 25 years, authorized persons–including subjects of the record, immediate family members, and legal representatives–may order certified copies of records from the Office of Vital Records.