Public records are information that is created, collected, managed, and stored by a public/government agency. These records are public because of the Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA), passed in 1966 to provide transparency within the U.S. government.
The definition of a public record is constantly changing as the world develops new technologies that contain, collect, manage, and store information. For example, email, body cams, and text messages are now forms of public information that did not exist when the law was enacted.
Public records may be filed with local, state, and federal agencies. In addition, each state has its own laws regarding what is considered public records and the rules regarding public access to them.
When searching for public records, you may encounter many different types of information. The term “public records” is expansive covering a wide variety of formats and types. For example, some information pertains to people, and other information refers to the government agency and its operations.
Some examples of public record categories are:
Are a person’s driving history, including infractions, violations, and driving convictions.
Refer to someone’s history within the penal system.
May include the person’s name, aliases, previous and current mailing addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers.
From various fields and industries (law, medicine, construction, etc.) will appear in public records.
Show when a piece of property was bought or sold, how much it sold for, and other details about the land and/or buildings.
Although vast information is available in public records, some things are still private, and you will not find them in public records searches.
Some examples of things that are not public records are:
Professionals and laypeople often use public records for background checks. Employers want to know that a new driver has a clean driving record before hiring them. School officials need to know that employees don’t have a history of sex offenses. Students and reporters often use public records for research. There is a lot of specific and general information in official records that may be used for various purposes.
Some of the things you can do with public records include:
Searching for public records can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Because each records office stores and manages public records differently, it can be time-consuming to locate everything you need. For example, the local police may list information online, whereas the county clerk’s office stores it in paper format. First, you need to know who holds the information you seek. Then you must either visit the agency in person, or sometimes they offer the records online in a search portal (usually on a .gov website). Often you will have to spend hours searching many different places for all the pertinent information. In addition, most agencies charge for public records either per page, hourly, or a flat fee.
Public records websites like ThePublicIndex collects records from thousands of sources and brings them together in one search engine, making searching for records quicker and easier.
Sometimes you can access a public records database for free. For example, some courthouse websites allow you to search for specific cases based on the person’s name, docket number, or case type. However, if you need copies of case records and documents, you may have to visit the courthouse in person and pay the court clerk’s office to get them.
You can find some public records like social media information, photographs, and even contact details online for free by doing a Google search. However, it’s much more efficient to use a powerful search tool that includes public records from all over the country in one place.
Some government offices require you to fill out a specific public records request form when looking for records. Usually, they charge a small fee to retrieve the records. Therefore, you can expect to pay anywhere from 1 cent/per page to a maximum of $100 for records.
Most often, someone can inspect records for free, but if the agency has to locate them or provide copies, they have the right to charge a fair fee. You can check the official website for the government agency for a complete fee schedule or look for an FAQ (frequently asked questions) section for more information.