Depending on your point of view, public records are either a blessing or a curse. If you’re an employer, public records can help you weed out undesirable candidates. But if you’re someone who has something to hide or just want to protect your privacy, public records probably make you a little uneasy.
No matter which side you fall on, public records play a vital role in our society. As with anything that plays a role in the lives of hundreds of millions of people, it’s important to know what’s out there for the world to see. Below we’ll cover many of the records that are available for public inspection and how you (or someone else) can access them.
What Records Can The Public View?
Before we get into which records are publicly available, it’s important to note that even though records may be “public,” they might not be easily accessible. The Internet and public records meta-sites have made it much easier to find information online, but some records will require you to mail in a request or make a trip to a county courthouse in order for you to view them.
Another thing to be aware of is that different states have different rules when it comes to what is considered a public record. What’s available for public viewing in one state may not be considered public in another.
The most common publicly available records include:
- Birth certificates
- Death certificates
- Marriage licenses
- Divorce records
- Property deeds and mortgages
- Property tax records
- Professional licenses – medical, law and others
- Businesses licenses and assumed names (dba)
- Driving records
- Criminal records – convictions, charges, warrants, etc.
- Sex offender records
- Court records
- Unclaimed property
- Missing persons
- Voter registration records
- Election rolls
- Campaign funding records
- Census records
What Do Public Records Contain?
What you’ll find inside a public record depends on what type of record it is.
Say you’re looking at a “vital record” such as a birth certificate. These records contain basic identifying information. A birth certificate would include the person’s name, date of birth, time of birth, place of birth, sex and parents’ names. When viewing a public record, you’re looking at all of the information that was originally recorded on the record except under certain conditions.
If you were to look at a voter registration record, you’ll find the information a person provided when they filled out the card. That would typically include their name, address, date of birth, voting precinct and voting district. Depending on where they lived and what they filled out on the form, you may also find their party affiliation.
However, not all “public” records allow the public to view everything. Some information may be restricted and effectively “blacked-out” from records that the public is able to view. This is usually to prevent some form of sensitive personal information from being leaked that could put the person of record in harm’s way. For instance, most juvenile criminal records are sealed and not able to be viewed by the public. This is to ensure that an indiscretion someone makes as a minor doesn’t follow them around for the rest of their life.
How To Access Public Records
Public records are designated as public that that anyone can view them. But that’s not always the case.
At the national level, you have to deal with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This law allows a person to request access to any information controlled by the government that hasn’t been disclosed to the public. This includes official email correspondence and other forms of communication by people employed by or elected to the federal government. Your request may be granted, granted with restricted access or denied in whole.
Most states have their own versions of FOIA regarding who can access public records and how much access the public has to those records.
The main takeaway is that public records are generally available for everyone to view, but depending on the reason for the request, the jurisdiction the request was made in or other statutory regulations, you may face an uphill battle when attempting to gain access. Luckily, the most commonly requested public records are not difficult to access.
Requesting Public Records
The internet has made it easy to view public records. Many records that are considered public can easily be found online either through a Google search query, a free online records search or through a fee-based information service like Records.com.
That said, not all records are made available online. When that’s the case, you’ll need to request the record you need by contacting agencies at either the local, state or national level. When searching for local or state records that aren’t available online, you should start your search with the corresponding records department. Someone who works at your city hall or country courthouse will be able to point you in the right direction.
When it comes to gaining access to national public records that haven’t been released to the public, you will need to submit a FOIA request to the U.S. Department of State or directly to the federal agency that possesses the information you’re requesting.
The Internet has made finding public records easier than ever, but the process can still be time-consuming, difficult and limited in the information that you’re able to access when using a free records search or using a search engine like Google. Records.com specializes in retrieving public records for you. With our public records search, you’ll be able to access billions of public records across our dozens of databases to provide you with all the information you need.