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Public records are documents that government agencies create, store, and maintain. Some of these documents carry information about individuals, whereas others carry information about the American government and its different policies.

As the name suggests, public records are completely accessible by any member of the public.

Public records, along with the information they contain, are compiled based on data analysis, scientific research, government actions (local, state, and federal), and previous records. Examples of public records that have to do with individuals include marriage and birth records.

Overview of Public Records

The term ‘public record’ is quite broad, encompassing a lot of things. Note also that what the term encompasses is always changing and evolving. After all, the ways public records were compiled and stored back in the day are very different from today’s means.

Some public records can only be accessed by calling or writing to certain agencies or offices and requesting copies, whereas others can be requested online using your computer or smartphone. Obviously, the former is more time-consuming than the latter, and it comes with reproduction costs.

Public records are available at different levels, including city, country, state, and federal level. Each level encompasses a different group of public records.

It’s also worth noting that the definition of a public record can vary from one state to the other. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, seeing as different states have different public record laws, as we’ll discuss shortly.

Examples of public records:

  • Court records
  • Marriage records
  • Birth records
  • Licensing records
  • Statistical data
  • Death records
  • Historical records
  • Research records
  • Correspondence
  • Meeting minutes
  • Voting records
  • Business records
  • Government financial records
  • Studies and reports
  • Government contracts and leases
  • Transcripts of hearings and meetings
  • Administrative policies and procedures
  • Manuals
  • Budgets
  • Examples of non-public records:
  • Juvenile court records
  • Tax returns
  • Library records
  • School records
  • Records containing sensitive information (like trade secrets)

Public Record Nomenclature

Every state in America has its own policies and regulations pertaining to public records. Not only that, but some states use different terms to refer to public records.

For instance, in Missouri, Louisiana, and Florida, public records requests are referred to as sunshine requests. Similarly, in Wisconsin, Ohio, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, they’re referred to as open record requests.

Some states even have their own terms that no other state uses. For instance, public records are referred to as CPRAs in California, OPRAs in New Jersey, CORAs in Colorado, MGDPAs in Minnesota, TPRAs in Tennessee, GRAMAs in Utah, TPIAs in Texas, and OPRLs in Oregon.

Public Record Exemptions

Public record exemptions are divided into two main categories: categorical exemptions and conditional exemptions.

Categorical exemptions encompass a certain type of information or a specific record, whereas conditional exemptions, as the name suggests, are based on the best interest of the government or people.

Seeing as public record exemptions tend to vary from one state to the other, there are other terms that are used in different states to refer to exemptions in public records law, such as:

  • Not admissible
  • Not discoverable
  • Privileged
  • Confidential
  • Shall not be disclosed

Some public records that are hard and sometimes impossible to access include national security records, attorney-client privilege records, trade secrets, and certain law enforcement techniques.

The Cost of Attaining Public Records

While some public records are free, others come at a production fee. The fee varies from state to state. Some states have a fixed fee schedule, whereas others leave it up to the public record agency to charge a reasonable fee. A good example of the latter category of states is Alabama.

Some public record agencies charge a flat hourly rate. So, the time taken in searching, reviewing, and redacting the requested public records will factor in the cost. Agencies that follow this pricing approach are found in states like Colorado and Rhode Island.

On the other hand, some public record agencies charge for the printing or the labor. There are even public record agencies that don’t charge a single dollar for producing public records, and they’re found in states like Washington, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois.

Finding Public Records

Searching for public records is quite challenging, and overcoming that challenge starts with narrowing down exactly what you want. After all, public records come in numerous forms, and there’s an endless flood of data that you can access.

In most cases, you’ll have to fill out a digital request form in order to access the public records you’re seeking. In other cases, you’ll have to appear in person to fill out your public records request.

It’s also worth noting that, in some states, you have to prove that you’re a resident of the state in order to make a public records request. This is the case in the state of Tennessee.

If this is your first time navigating through public records, you’ll probably feel lost and confused. Don’t sweat it, tough. Sifting through public records is a skill that needs to be developed, and there are plenty of resources online that can help you with the process.

Note that the difficulty of the process varies from one state to another and from one city to another. Take Albuquerque as an example, where most public record requests are published and can easily be accessed. This helps the city, as well as the people requesting the public records, save time and effort.

Learn About Your State’s Public Records

To help you find the public records you’re looking for, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about public record laws and navigation in every state. All you have to do is click on your state, and you’ll find the exact information you’re looking for.