What are Public Records?
The term “public records” is an umbrella term that covers a vast number of records that are, for the most part, public information.
Common examples of public records include:
- Birth and death certificates.
- Marriage licenses and 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.
Inside a Public Record
What’s included in a public record depends on the nature of the record.
For example, vital records typically include basic, but personally identifying, information. A birth certificate, for instance, includes the person’s name; his date, time, and place of birth; and his parents’ names. Marriage certificates include the names of both parties who married, the date of the marriage, who performed the ceremony, where the ceremony took place, and witness signatures.
Your voter registration records include all information you provided when you registered to vote (including your name, address, and date of birth) and are often used to determine registration status, party affiliation, precinct location, and legislative district.
Driving records might include information about traffic tickets and accidents, DMV points (if applicable), and any major violations such as reckless driving, DUI or DWI, and vehicular homicide or manslaughter.
NOTE: Despite their name, some public records do not provide everything to the public. See below.
Accessing Public Records
In theory, anyone can access public records.
This means you can access your own public records, as well as another person’s public records. Likewise, other people can access your public records.
In practice, though, sometimes there are a few speed bumps along the way.
For example, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) guides national public records, and federal agencies can deny certain requests (especially if the information is exempted due to reasons such as unreasonable invasion of privacy) or provide only partial information.
Similarly, states have their own versions of FOI legislation, so you could run into issues with, say, North Carolina’s Public Records Law or Maryland’s Public Information Act.
Floridians, or anyone searching for public records in Florida, might have to tangle with not one, but two or even three different open government laws including the Statutory Public Records, Statutory Public Meetings, and Judicial Access Decisional Law.
Summed up? Know that generally, public records are available to the public; however, depending on the nature of the request, the document, and the area’s laws, you might meet some extra steps (or resistance) along the way.
How to Request Public Records
Most commonly, people make requests for public records on the local or state and national levels.
On a local or state level, you’ll contact the agency in your state that handles public records. Generally, your local town or city hall or courthouse can help you start this process.
On a national level, you can make an FOIA request to the U.S. Department of State or the specific federal agency in question. (The FOIA recommends checking that agency’s website for specific information.)
NOTE: Some third-party agencies handle public record requests for you.
Public Records and the Internet
It’s easier than ever to research information on the Internet, but just as teachers warn students about believing everything they read on Wikipedia, we, too, should be wary about trusting everything we read online.
When searching for public records online (if you’re not using a state or federal agency, that is), your best bet is to use an actual third-party company that specializes in searching public records; even then, make sure to do your research and choose a reputable company. Often these businesses charge fees, so you want to make sure you’re not wasting money.