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What are Public Records?: Everything You Need to Know

Michelle Wilson - July 14, 2022

What is a Public Record? - Everything You Need to Know

Public records are a vital part of our society and play an essential role in both government and private life. They are the official documents that contain information about the activities of government agencies, businesses, and individuals.

Most people think of public records as government documents, but the term refers to any record open to inspection by the general public. There are various types of public records, including birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, divorce records, property records, and criminal records. Each type of record contains different information that can be used for a variety of purposes.

This article will take a closer look at what public records are, how they are used, and where you can find them.

Public Records: The Who, What, & Why

A public record is any document or information a government agency makes for public viewing. This includes everything from birth and death certificates to property records and tax documents. In short, if a document is created or maintained by a government entity, there’s a good chance it’s a public record.

There are a few exceptions to what is considered a public record. For example, information classified as confidential or sensitive (such as medical records or social security numbers) is not typically considered a public record. Additionally, some states have laws that exempt certain types of information from public disclosure (such as ongoing law enforcement investigations).

Who Generates Public Records?

As we mentioned, public records are created and maintained by government agencies. This includes all levels of government, from the federal government down to your local city or town.

How Are Public Records Created?

Most public records are created in the course of everyday business by government employees. For example, when a birth certificate is issued, or a property deed is recorded, that information is added to the public record.

In some cases, public records are created by citizens themselves. For example, if you file a Freedom of Information Act request, the resulting document(s) will become a part of the public record.

Why Are Public Records Created?

Public records are created for a variety of reasons. The most common cause is to provide transparency into the inner workings of government. In addition, government agencies can be held accountable for their actions by making documents available to the public.

Citizens can also use public records to obtain information about their community, such as property values or crime statistics. Public records can also be used as evidence in court cases or other legal proceedings.

The Importance of Public Records

So, why are public records important?

  • First, public records play a vital role in our democracy. They provide transparency and accountability by giving the public access to information about their government. Additionally, public records can be used by journalists, researchers, and ordinary citizens to keep tabs on their government and ensure that it is functioning correctly.
  • Second, public records are essential for historical purposes. They provide a way to track our country’s and our communities’ development over time. Public records can be used to research your family history, learn about the history of your community, or investigate a particular event or person.
  • Finally, public records play a role in our everyday lives. For example, they can be used to obtain information about your community, find out about property values, or check the crime statistics for your neighborhood. Public records can also be used as evidence in legal proceedings.

What are the Different Kinds of Public Records?

There are various types of public records, and the specific types of records available vary from state to state. However, some of the most common types of public records include:

  • Birth certificates
  • Death certificates
  • Marriage licenses
  • Divorce records
  • Property records
  • Tax records
  • Voter registration records
  • Criminal records

Are Public Records Accessible?

The answer to this question depends on the state you live in. Some states have laws allowing anyone to access public records, while others have restrictions. For example, some states only allow certain types of information (such as birth certificates) to be accessed by immediate family members. In contrast, others may charge a fee for accessing public records.

The best way to find out if public records are accessible in your state is to contact your local government office or visit your state’s website.

How Can I Access Public Records?

If you want to access public records, there are a few ways to do so.

Contact your Local, State, or Federal Government Office

You can contact the office of your local government, state government, or the federal government to request access to public records. Each level of government has different procedures for requesting records, so you must determine the specific process for the type of records you seek.

Submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request

The Freedom of Information Act is a federal law that gives individuals the right to request access to records from any federal agency. FOIA requests can be submitted online, by mail, or by fax.

File a Public Records Request with the Specific Agency

You can also contact the government agency you believe has the records you seek. However, each agency has different procedures for handling public records requests, so it is essential to contact the agency directly to find out how to submit your request.

Using a Background Check Website

Several websites collect public records and make them available to the general public. However, these websites typically charge a fee for access to the documents. But, in contrast to government agencies, these websites may provide a quicker insight into public records.

Fun Facts About Public Records

Now that you know a bit more about public records, here are some fun facts about them:

  • The oldest public records in the United States date back to 1638 and are kept at the Massachusetts State Archives.
  • In 2012, the FBI released over 1.5 million pages of public records in response to FOIA requests.
  • In 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that tweets are considered public records.
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is responsible for preserving over billions of public records.
  • Public records can be found in various formats, including paper, electronic, and microfilm.
  • 33% of Americans say they have accessed public records, while 60% say they would if needed.

Public Records FAQs

Are Public Records Laws the Same in Each State?‍

‍In the United States, public records laws vary from state to state. In some states, such as California, these laws are pretty broad and give the public access to a wide range of government records. In other states, however, the laws are much more restrictive and only allow access to a limited number of records. In addition, the specific types of records available to the public also vary from state to state. For example, birth and death records are considered public information in California. In contrast, in other states, such as Massachusetts, these records are considered confidential and only accessible to immediate family members.

As a result of these differences, it is essential to be familiar with the public records laws in your state before attempting to access any government documents.

How Do You Find Public Records?

There are many reasons why you might need to find public records. Maybe you’re doing a background check on a new neighbor or researching your family tree. Whatever the reason, there are a few ways to go about finding public records. One option is to visit your local courthouse or government office. This is where most public records are kept, and you can usually request copies of documents for a small fee. Another option is to search online databases.

Many government agencies now make public records available online, and private companies have also compiled extensive public records databases. While this option is generally more convenient, it’s essential to know that not all online databases are reliable.

Finally, you can hire a professional researcher to find public records for you. This option is usually more expensive, but it can be worth it if you need access to hard-to-find records.

How Much Do Public Records Cost?

The price of public records varies depending on the state in which you request them and the type of record you are requesting. For example, birth certificates typically cost between $10 and $20, while court records can cost upwards of $50. In most cases, you can request public records by mail, fax, or in person at the relevant government office. Some states also allow you to request records online, though there is usually a fee for this service. Generally speaking, public records are relatively affordable, and the cost is typically worth it if you need access to critical information.

What is Not Considered a Public Record?

Generally, any document created or received by a government agency is considered a public record. This includes everything from emails and memos to meeting minutes and financial records. However, there are some exceptions. For example, records that fall under attorney-client privilege or involve national security are not subject to public disclosure.

Additionally, some states have laws protecting certain types of personal information, such as medical and juvenile records. So while the definition of a public record is broad, there are still some limits on what can be accessed by the general public.

How to Begin Making a Public Records Request?‍

If you want to obtain a copy of a public record, you must submit a request to the government office that has custody of the records. The process for making a request can vary depending on the office, but there are some general steps that you can follow.

  • First, contact the office to find out how to submit a request. Many offices have an online form you can use, but some may require you to submit a written request. Be sure to include as much information as possible about the records you seek.
  • Next, the office will review your request and determine whether the records are available and if any exemptions apply. If the records are available, the office will provide you with an estimate of the cost for copying and mailing the documents.
  • Finally, once you have submitted your payment, the office will send you the requested records. By following these steps, you can obtain copies of public records from government offices.

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