The idea of public records is nearly as old as civilization itself. Reports of births, deaths, and marriages go back as far as ancient Babylon, where they were etched into clay tablets.
Nowadays, public information is much easier to record—and to track down. And with public records so easily accessible, it's important to know exactly what can be found out there, and where to find it.
What Are Public Records?
The concept of a public record is relatively self-explanatory. It constitutes an official reporting of facts accessible to any member of the community.
However, just because they're open to the public doesn't mean they're easy to access.
Governments have a variety of regulations placed upon:
- What types of information can be made public.
- Where information can be stored.
- How information can be distributed.
Information in a Public Record
There are two main public record categories:
- Personal public records: Those keeping track of individuals.
- Business/government public records: Those keeping track of companies, corporations, or government agencies.
The specific data marked on a public record will depend considerably on which type of report is being accessed.
Personal Public Records
Public records focusing on individuals usually include a fair amount of personal identifying information. Most often, they're created by government agencies and form a paper trail outlining a person's life.
Personal public records may include some or all* of the following information:
- Birth date/age.
- Names of family members.
- Political party affiliation.
- Past arrests.
- Businesses or websites owned.
* NOTE: These are just a few examples of the information typically available on public records, but does not represent a full list of facts.
Business/Government Public Records
Business and government public records generally come from information recorded within the business or agency itself. They are often more statistical in nature.
Some information that may be available* on a business or government public record include:
- Number of employees.
- Fictitious business names.
- Collection items.
- Business credit score.
- Payment history.
- Business ownership.
* NOTE: This list does not represent the full array of facts available on a business or government public record.
Types of Public Records
There are many different types of public records. In the case of individual public records, they typically revolve around major life milestones and include:
- Birth and death certificates.
- Marriage certificates and divorce decrees.
- Deeds, mortgages, and other related property records.
- Various licenses, including professional and business licenses.
- Driving records.
- Criminal records, including wants and warrants.
- Sex offender records.
- Court records.
- Unclaimed property.
- Missing persons.
- Voter registration and election records.
Corporate or government public records often make note of disciplinary measures or are broken down into quarterly or annual reports. Some examples include:
- Real estate appraisals.
- Census records.
- Government spending reports.
- Legislation minutes.
- Consumer protection information.
- Liens, judgments, or bankruptcy filings.
- Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filings.
Accessing Public Records
Public records are typically accessed either through the government or through a private business.
A plethora of companies now offer to complete your public record search on either an individual, business, or both—typically for a fee. Many of these companies offer online services.
The government will usually supply such information for free; however, going this route typically takes more time.
Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the national law regarding the release of government agency public records.
While using FOIA, you can:
- Request any type of public record report from the agency.
- Determine the form you want the information in.
- i.e. Printed vs. electronic.
However, the law does not require agencies to:
- Create new records.
- Conduct new research.
- Analyze data.
- Answer questions.
FOIA requests must be submitted in writing and explain the public records you want. Most government agencies allow requests via e-mail, fax, or filling out an online form.
The easiest way to complete a FOIA request is by visiting the agency's website from which you want the information. The U.S. government keeps a list of agency FOIA contact information.
Requests are free, but agencies may charge a fee to produce some records—typically those that are more difficult to find. Fee waivers are available in some cases.
State Public Record Laws
Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests at a more local level must be made on a state-by-state, or, sometimes, municipality-by-municipality basis, as each state and each level of government has its own public records laws.
In order to access the desired information, you must contact the specific agency in your state that would handle the records, such as:
- Town halls.
- State or county clerk offices.
- State or municipal courts.
- Department of Motor Vehicles offices.