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 Wisconsin’s public records law?
The Wisconsin Open Records Law 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 any document in any form produced or held by a government agency.
For the most part, anyone can make a public records request in Wisconsin without declaring a statement of purpose, but there are some limits placed on the access of records for incarcerated persons and those that have been committed to a mental institution. There is no mandated time limit for agencies to respond to a records request.
Examples of Wisconsin public records
Wisconsin public records include, but are not limited to:
- Criminal record information
- Birth certificates
- Death certificates
- Court case information
- Marriage records
- Divorce records
- Licensing records
- Business records
- Historical records
- Government contracts
- Voting records
The following are NOT public records in Wisconsin:
- Trade secrets
- Computer programs
- Select investigative records
- Library records
- Medical records
- Student transcripts
- Social welfare information
- Sealed records
- Tax returns
- Unpublished research and commercial data
Where can I access Wisconsin public records?
- Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions: Search Corporate Records – Lookup a Wisconsin business to learn its initial filing date, entity type, principal office address, charter document filing history, current status, and more. You can also order copies of annual reports through the Online Order System.
- Wisconsin Court System: Case Search – A free-to-use search tool granting public access to a large, regularly updated database of Wisconsin circuit court documents and case information. Users can search by person name, business name, or case number.
- Wisconsin Court System: Supreme Court Opinions – An online directory of Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions, disposition tables, oral arguments, and briefs. The opinions found on the site date back to September 1995.
- WORCS (Wisconsin Online Record Check System) – A fee-based service provided by the Wisconsin Department of Justice that can be used to search the criminal history information of anyone. Individuals may register an account with WORCS or use the service on a one-time basis as a guest.
- Wisconsin Historical Society: Wisconsin State Archives and State Records – The State Archives is located in state capital Madison and presides over an extensive collection of historical legislative records, statistical reports, policy records, governor’s office records, and historically relevant audiovisual materials. The Archives’ collections can be searched online through the library catalog, and records can be requested in person or remotely through email.
Sex Offender Information
- Wisconsin Department of Corrections: Sex Offender Registry – The Wisconsin Sex Offender Registry is made available to the public online and can be searched by name or geographical area. Individuals can also sign up for community notifications in order to be informed if a registered offender moves into the area.
- Wisconsin Dept. of Health Services: Vital Records Services – Wisconsin is an open state concerning vital records and therefore the general public is able to request copies of birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, and divorce certificates through the Vital Records Office. However, obtaining certified copies of records is restricted to authorized persons.