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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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Public Records Create a Path of Information

Public records are created with nearly every major event in an individual’s or company’s lifetime. These records are maintained by both federal and state agencies, and may be accessed by any citizen who submits an appropriate request. They are largely helpful when conducting background checks, learning more about public government figures or the country’s history, or finding a lost loved one. Virtually any reason or subject you may need to research is most likely affected by or found within public records of some sort.


Accessing Public Records

Per the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), federal records are provided for public view upon request. However, this law does exempt certain types of records which may be considered confidential, such as medical or educational records. In addition, federal laws exist to protect the information that is disclosed and that which may be redacted from a record prior to providing it to the public. This redacted information is often considered a personal identifier, such as Social Security information, or may be inaccessible when it relates to a minor citizen.


Finding Public Records

Public records are maintained at the state and/or federal level, depending upon the type of record you may be looking for. Any record created by a federal agency or a federal official is likely maintained and provided by that agency or the National Archives. The advantage to searching for federal records is that an amendment to the FOIA deemed that these national records must be available electronically. Most agency websites thus provide an easy way to request and obtain them. 

Public records created and maintained at the state level are often found with the County Clerk or Vital Records Office for the corresponding locale. These records are governed by state-specific laws and rules that do not cross state lines. This means that one state may allow access to different types of information in a marriage certificate than another, for example.


Types of Public Records

The many types of public records which you may access in a search are either confidential or not. Confidential records include educational, medical, some criminal, income tax and social welfare records. Other types of records that may be of interest but can be accessed include census information, SEC filings, bankruptcy and district court records, property records, political contribution records, and vital records such as birth, death, marriage and divorce records.

Other records which may be of special interest include driving records, immigration records and professional license records. The offices which maintain and provide these records to the public may vary somewhat from state to state, and may also only be found in the corresponding county where the event took place.


Reasons to Seek Public Records

Public records may be requested and researched for a variety of reasons, most often being genealogical research or background checks. If you conduct a background check on an individual, you must keep in mind that arrest and court records do not cross state lines, and thus must be checked out in each county or state where he or she has lived. However, federal court records, sex offender registries and criminal histories are all available online through federal websites. This is true no matter where the individual lives or has lived in the past. 

Other reasons you may search for public records include examining a political candidate’s financial backing, the financial health of corporation you are considering doing business with, or even determining whether the product you think you’ve invented has been patented or not.

With each life event and filing of updated information with your local government authorities, you are constantly updating the public records databases containing specific information about you and your activities. Whether state or federal in nature, corresponding statutes and constitutions require specific privacy and access practices to ensure transparency and equality among all parties requesting them.


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