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Under The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Title 5 of the United States Code, section 552, any person has the right to request access to public records: criminal records, arrests & warrants, inmate records, vital records & more.

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Information Found in Government Public Records

Government public records are created and maintained by all levels of government in the U.S., and made available to the public for review. Due to the growing use of the Internet, many local government agencies are providing these government records online to its community. However, these electronic filing systems do cost time and money to implement, so this may not be true for your city or county government. When an Internet search for government public records does not produce the records you’re looking for, you may need to visit the local courthouse or government agency in person to request them. Following is a discussion of the types of government public records and information contained in them.

Levels of Government Records

The different levels of government records correspond with the familiar levels of government. Local city or municipal records, county records, state records and federal records all exist and provide different types of information. In order to determine where the records you seek are maintained, you may need to contact several agencies. Generally, if the record you are looking for is related to a national entity, such as a chain of retail stores, or a federal issue such as bankruptcies or military personnel, you will need to search through federal records. Otherwise, you will need to approach the correct local government offices to request information such as birth records, property tax records or court records.

Uses for Government Public Records

Government-issued and maintained public records can be used for a wide range of research and practical applications. If it is an election year and you’d like to learn more about who and what is backing a particular candidate, you can access political contribution records. These records provide the name of the individual or corporation and the amount of monetary support they have given the candidate.

These records can also be used when conducting a background or criminal check for employment purposes. If you do not outsource this to another company, you will need to approach the appropriate law enforcement and court agencies to research the person yourself. The important thing to remember is that these agencies are not connected over state lines, so if someone has lived in several different areas you will need to contact several different local agencies. Department of Corrections, court and police arrest records will all provide some insight to an individual’s criminal history or lack thereof.

Another reason to access these records is to research a company you are considering doing business with or working for. Perhaps you want to check the company’s financial strength, or ensure it has not been party to liability lawsuits in the past. SEC records and local court records will often provide this information. You may also search political contribution records to determine if the company has financially backed specific candidates in the past.

If you want a reliable way to access information about your ancestors or a missing family member, government records may help during your investigation. Researching vital records such as birth, death, marriage and divorce records will often provide a roadmap of where that individual lived and left a paper trail or loved ones. With these records, you can learn about the number of times someone was married and to whom, where they were born and buried, and even the identities of any children they had.

Most of these records will provide you with address, maiden name, age, full name and perhaps even occupational information. However, these records are maintained with the corresponding county or state governments only; they are not found at the federal level. This means that if a person you are researching moved to a different locale, you will need to approach the appropriate records offices of both.

Accessing Government Public Records

Most government public records are now either available or may be requested online through official government websites. If you are searching for local government records, you may want to begin with your state’s official site. If the corresponding local government office does not provide the records online, you may need to contact them in person or via phone, and will most likely need to provide your own identification information.  Federal records may be traced through the National Archives, found at Per the Freedom of Information Act, these federal records are available for public view, but each state outlines the accessibility and permissions to access local government records.


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