If you are looking for as much information as you can about a person, their criminal records, their possible death, marriage, and more… The best resources in the USA consist of public records.
In this article, we are going to find out what they are, how to access them, and how much they can cost.
What are public records?
Public records are information that is not considered confidential and that is recorded and stored by the government.
Every citizen has the right to access public records that are not confidential.
Not every record is confidential: authorities can decide to make a record confidential for many reasons (for example, to protect the identity of a victim or a minor) and some are only accessible to attorneys that are working on specific cases.
Why do public records exist?
The reason why much information is considered public in the United States is that information and its publicity help keep government activities transparent.
They also provide official views for precise individuals: their place of birth, their criminal records, their property ownership, and anything that pertains to the conduct of the government.
Types of public records
There are different types of public records:
- birth and death certificates
- driving and traffic records
- warrant and probation records
- court records
- criminal records
- marriage and divorce records
- lien and judgment records
- government records
- naturalization and immigration records
- civil and vital records
Semi-public and closed records
Some information can also be considered semi-public. It means that the record is public but some information included in it is confidential so you won’t be able to access it.
For example, you could access criminal records but the name, address, and other personal information of the victim could be confidential.
There are also closed records: they are maintained by the federal government and only accessible by court order.
How to access public records
Public records are maintained by public offices and government agencies.
Each entity is responsible for the maintenance of the different types of public records, and – if you access them – you need to address the entity that is storing the public record you need.
You can mainly have access to public records by:
- Physical request
- Mail request
- Online search
Physical request for public records
You can search for public records by physically going to the public office that is storing the documents you are seeking and making a request.
You will be asked to fill a form where you provide your data and specify what types of records you need.
You are asked to provide any information you have to help find the public records you need: for example name, date of birth, address of the person you are searching for information about.
The main problem with this method is that you may need to travel to reach the public office you need. For this reason, there are two more methods available.
Mail request for public records
You can request public records by mail. The process is similar to when you request a record physically, with the exception that you fill up the form and send it via mail. You will receive a copy of the requested public records by mail as well.
Online search is certainly the easiest and most convenient way of searching for public records.
Each public entity provides an online platform where you can enter keywords and search for the records you need.
This is ideal even when you don’t know what public entity is storing the specific public record you are looking for.
There are many online services available that allow you to just enter some keywords and provide information about where you can find what you’re seeking, or provide the public records themselves.
Online public records can be visualized online, saved, or even printed.
How much does it cost?
Requesting and obtaining public records can have a cost. Costs are usually related to printing costs and that is another reason why the online search is the most convenient:
You can avoid printing the documents and save a lot of money (you can also print them with your own printer which is cheaper than having a public office printing and providing copies to you).
When, instead, you ask a public office, they’ll require a specific cost for each page being printed.
How long are public records available?
This information could be particularly useful to those who are searching for old records. There is not a precise rule about it.
The length of the availability for public records can vary depending on some factors: the type of document, the information it contains, and whether or not the record has been expunged.
For example, court judgment records are available for many years.
They are destroyed after a period of time that depends on the decisions and laws of the state they are stored in.
As a general rule, however, public records are and remain available for many many years, unless they are expunged or sealed.
For example, divorce records are generally public but the information regarding minors is always sealed.
Some records can be sealed for an order of the court: this usually happens when the court wants to protect the identity of a victim, or because a person specifically asks the court to seal their public records.
There are records that aren’t public. They are not an exception (like it happened when the identity of a minor is protected in a divorce record) but they are never public.
Medical records, for example, are never public and always private. Financial records are also never public.
Furthermore, there is some information that is never public. If they are included in a public record, they have always been sealed so that anyone who requests that public record can’t access this precise information. In particular:
- social security numbers are always sealed
- Insurance information is always sealed
- personal financial information is always sealed
- performance reviews are always sealed.
Access to public records in the different States
The process that provides access to public records isn’t the same in any state because it’s regulated by internal laws and regulations.
We have different degrees of accessibility to public records between the States.
In some states, access to public records and documents is easy, while there are states and counties where the process is longer and in some cases even more complex.
For example, the State of New York is very responsive when its entities need to respond to requests for access to public records.
Here, the Committee on Open Government is there to assist citizens with their requests.
On the contrary, Pennsylvania is more restricted when it comes to public records access.
The controversial use of public records
Since public records have become accessible online, requests for this type of documents have increased exponentially.
Dome industries – like broker companies – sometimes make a controversial use of these documents:
They use public records to create profiles of millions of people and they could also take profit from the service of recompiling and mining the data.
But the law regulating public records had all different purposes: public records should be used, for example, for ensuring that child support payments are made according to the court’s decisions, ensuring that pensions are properly paid to retirees, and so on.
Public records: FAQ
Can Access To Public Records Be Refused?
The US law states that any citizen can have access to public records. However, requests for access can be refused but only by federal agencies and in the cases provided by law.
Are Criminal Records Public?
Yes, criminal records are public. Law enforcement agencies keep records of every arrest, even if the arrest doesn’t result in any charge.
When someone is brought to court, furthermore, this is considered a public event so this is also part of criminal and court record.
Are Addresses Recorded In Public Records Sealed?
Addresses aren’t always sealed when they end up in a public record. As a consequence, addresses can be on file and recorded in some public records.
Because property records are public, addresses could also be available through this type of documents.
Can I Search For Public Records Regarding Myself?
Of course, you can. Many people, for example, search for their own criminal or court records to check whether they’ve been filed during past circumstances.
What Is The Best Way Of Searching For Public Records?
As we’ve seen through the article, there are several ways of searching for public records. The easiest, quickest, and most cost-effective is certainly the online search. On the other hand, when you need help from a public employee who can help you find what you need, the best choice is to go physically to the public office that is storing the public records you are searching through.