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Frequently Asked Questions About Public Records

What Are Public Records?

Public records are documents or any piece of information that is made or received, filed, or recorded by public agencies. These public records may be ones created by the federal and state government or made by individual citizens in connection with government bodies. Public records, therefore, may be information about particular individuals or information about the actions and policies of the government. Depending on its nature, a public record may be kept at a federal, state, or local level.

Public records are generally held in physical form, but can also be found online or via other sources. Also, public records are not limited to documents; they may include maps, CDs, audio and video recordings, photographs, computer files, and more. Although these documents or records are called “public”, accessing them may still be subject to laws. There are exemptions to the types of public documents that are made available to the public.

Can Anyone Access Public Records?

By principle, public records can be accessed or viewed by anyone. Access, particularly physical access in specific departments and agencies is usually done under supervision. Rules and restrictions are also applicable. Certain documents that are considered public records may not be accessible to the general public or may only be accessed under specific purposes and/or by specific individuals. In general, can access public records via online portals or even obtain copies by requesting the concerned department or agency. Requests may be made via mail, email, or phone, and every state has its particular time frame to complete public record requests.

Public Records in the United States were made more easily accessible through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1967. This requires transparency of all U.S. government agencies. While the FOIA primarily applies to the federal government, states have passed similar laws governing state public records.

Why Are Public Records Public?

Public records refer to any records kept by a public office. As the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and similar state laws mandate, such records must be made available and accessible to the public. 

When talking about public records, many people automatically think of any information about a specific individual. Keep in mind that public records also refer to any action, laws, and policies made by the government. Such public records are made accessible to the public mainly for transparency. The availability of public records to the public also influences the conduct and policies of public agencies in handling, keeping, and maintaining public records. Public access also holds government agencies accountable which makes these agencies ensure accuracy and integrity in their records and proceedings. Ultimately, public access helps in the upholding of the highest standards in all public agencies.

What Do Public Records Consist Of?

Public records cover a wide array of documents and information in all forms. They include government policies and all actions taken by the government that is duly recorded and/or documented. They also consist of information on individuals that are considered public information. 

  • Federal court records are considered public records. These include:
    • Civil court cases
    • Criminal charges
    • Bankruptcies
  • Licenses issued by the federal government. 
  • Records of people who spent time in a federal facility since 1982.
  • Local-level public records that may available: 
    • Arrest records 
    • Sex offender information
    • Vital records such as birth, death, marriage, and divorce records
    • Property records such as ownership and deed information
    • Liens
    • Corporation and LLC ownership. 

Note that there may be varying rules in accessing these records in every state. Also, access and even the use of obtained information may be subject to restrictions.

What Information Is Not Public Record?

All public records must be readily accessible to the public unless exempted from disclosure by law. Hence, even if a document or a particular piece of information is a public record by definition if deemed necessary to withhold it from the public, say, for safety and security reasons, then such information is not made public.

Some of the information that is usually not made public are trade secrets, medical records, Social Security Number, juvenile court records, tax returns, school and library records, and other documents containing sensitive information. Some records, like vital records, may only be obtained by the individual who owns the records or by the duly authorized person. Also, divorce or adoption records may be sealed depending on the circumstances. There are also certain court and criminal history records that may not be open to the public.

How Do I Make My Public Records Private?

You may get in touch with your County Clerk and check out any information on any public records connected to you. Such records may include marriage licenses, court records, deeds and mortgages, old wills, probate cases, government surveys, civil circuit files, vital records, and more. You may then request your country clerk to remove, redact, or modify all information that is allowed to be made changes to.

Highly sensitive information such as social security numbers, credit card numbers, government IDs, and the like may be easily removed from public records. The tricky part is removing your information that has been made public on the internet. There are a lot of data brokerage services online which may be showing your public records for free or a minimal fee. In this case, you may have to contact each brokerage site and go through the specified process for each site in connection to removing your information. In general, having any public information about you made private could be rather tricky and time-consuming.