If you’re searching for information that can only be obtained through certain government offices, databases, or even written requests, it’s important to have a basic knowledge of the protocol for requesting public records in the state of Alabama.
What are Public Records?
Any data recorded or filed by public agencies become part of the collective body of information referred to as “public records.” The retention of this information, which can be created by federal or local governments (as well as individuals), is required by law.
Any correspondence between state agencies and members of the legislature is also considered public records, as are records relating to financial documents for government-funded programs.
Public records are kept in physical files. However many are also available via the Internet or other sources. Their availability is determined by federal, state, and local regulations. And while their disclosure is required by law, they aren’t always simple to obtain.
Commonly searched public records include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Bankruptcies and Liens
- Civil Judgments
- Criminal Records
- Jail and Inmate Records
- Police Reports
- Property Records
How does the state of Alabama define public records?
The Code of Alabama loosely defines public records as all written or printed materials of any kind that are made or received by any public officers of the counties, municipalities, state, or other divisions of government in pursuance of the law. The Code goes on to include authorized records belonging to or pertaining to any court, as well as any other public record authorized by law (i.e. papers, pleadings, exhibits, or other writings filed in, with, or by any court, office, or officer.
What federal laws govern the availability of and access to public records?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 is a federal law that states that anyone has an enforceable right to request access to federal agency records. In turn, all federal agencies are required to make those records available, unless they’re protected due to an exemption.
These exemptions, established by Congress, are nine categories of information that are not required to be released, as their disclosure could result in harm to a governmental or private interest (i.e. personal privacy, national security, or law enforcement).
Because the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court recognize access to public records as a vital part of our democracy, agencies are also required to proactively post frequently requested records and certain other types of information.
Note the FOIA only applies to federal agencies. It does not govern the release of records held by the courts, Congress, or state and local agencies. As such, the laws of each state dictate public access to its state and local records.
What is the applicable law in the state of Alabama?
Freedom of information is provided in the state of Alabama under the Code of Alabama 1975, § 36-12-40, which grants that every citizen has a legal right to both inspect and make a photocopy of any public writing of the state, unless otherwise expressly excluded.
Public writings have been defined by the Alabama Supreme Court as records which are “reasonably necessary to record the business and activities required to be done or carried on by a public officer so that the status and condition of such business and activities can be known by our citizens.” Stone v. Consol. Pub. Co., 404 So. 2d 678, 681 (Ala. 1981).
Are there specific exemptions?
There are only two exemptions specifically stated in the Alabama code. One relates to information concerning the use of the public, public school, or college/university libraries (although parents of a minor child do have the right to inspect records pertaining to their child).
Another exemption clause allows for the exemption of any information that could be detrimental to public safety or the general welfare and best interests of the public.
State examples include:
- Security plans
Also named are any other records that relate to or have a potential impact on the security or safety of persons, facilities, structures, or other infrastructures.
While only these exemptions are mentioned in the statute, a wealth of case law has also provided additional interpretation. The Court held that recorded information received in confidence by a public officer, pending criminal investigations, sensitive personnel records, and records of which the disclosure would be detrimental to the best interests of the public were also excluded from public disclosure. Stone, 404 So. 2d at 681.
Likewise, draft documents (i.e. versions of proposed administrative rules and legislation) used internally by a State agency were declared as not subject to disclosure under the Open Records Law. The same applied to draft documents shared externally, as well as internal and external correspondence (such as emails) on possible actions to be taken by a governmental agency. Ala. Op. Atty Gen. No. 2017-036 (June 20, 2017).
What is the intention of the law?
The Alabama state law concerning the release of public records does not have a clear declaration of philosophical intention. What it does say is that “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”
What agencies are covered?
The Alabama code expands its definition to “public officers,” which includes–in addition to appointed or elected officials–all persons collectively who occupy positions in state institutions.
While not specifically stated, the broad definition of the public body would logically include state legislators.
Private Governmental Agencies
Concerning private entities and nonprofits, Alabama case law offers two clear applications for public records laws. The first merely requires that the private corporation should function as a public body.
However, it suggests that the court should consider the origin of the corporation, how it first presented itself, and the extent to which a public body had control over the corporation when making its determination.
The second application states that to be considered a public body, a corporation must be created, funded, controlled, and functioning as a public body.
Public universities within the state of Alabama do meet the definition of public bodies.
Does the law apply to government meetings as well as public records?
The Alabama Open Meetings Act extends freedom of information to government meetings as well. The Act explains that it is the policy of the state of Alabama that the deliberative process of all governmental bodies is open to the public. Exceptions apply for specific executive sessions permitted by law or by other state and federal statutes.
However, outside of those exceptions, all meetings of governmental bodies should be open to the public, and no meetings of a governmental body may be held without providing advance notice.
Who may request records?
The Alabama Public Records Law states that “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”
However, no distinction is made whether one must be a citizen of the state of Alabama or merely just a U.S. citizen.
Are there fees associated with requesting public records in Alabama?
The law in Alabama doesn’t encourage the use of fees in exchange for records searches. Nor does it prevent entities from charging them. Hence the required fees are the sole determination of the person who handles the public records request within each department.
How long will I have to wait for the records I’ve requested?
The Alabama code does not specify a certain time frame within which requested records must be provided. What it does say, however, is that once they have received the appropriate fees they are required to surrender the records.
What if my request is denied or isn’t processed in a timely manner?
Because of a lack of a formal appeals process, the only real way to take action against any denial of, or delay in providing, access to public records in the state of Alabama is to sue. And any citizen or member of the media is entirely within their right to do so.
The statute of limitations is two years from the action of requesting access. However, the sooner the better, as courts may be hesitant to issue a preliminary injunction if a delay in filing exists.
The suit would be filed in the state circuit court in the county where the custodian of the records resides. A suit for access to public records may also include a demand for a declaratory judgment, asking the court to declare that particular category of records as public.
Do I need a specific reason to request records?
The laws in the state of Alabama do not require you to state your purpose for requesting public records. Similarly, the use of those records is not limited to specific actions.
However, Alabama has held that agencies are permitted to ask about the purpose of a records request (Blankenship v. City of Hoover). Case law also exists to help prevent requests made merely for the sake of curiosity (Holcombe v. State ex rel. Chandler).
Who oversees the retention of records in the state of Alabama?
In 1955, the Alabama Public Records Law established the Alabama State Records Commission to determine which records should be kept and which should be destroyed. The Alabama Local Government Records Commission was started in 1987 to serve the same purpose with regards to local government records.
What are the most commonly requested public records?
There are a few types of records that are frequently requested and, consequently, fairly easy to obtain. Here are a few.
Criminal records include official information and documents concerning anyone who was arrested, charged, prosecuted, convicted, or sentenced, or who entered a plea. It also includes information on individuals who were discharged or acquitted.
These records may contain as little as merely the offender’s name. Or they may include detailed information regarding court documents filed by both the defense and prosecution.
Most commonly criminal records contain:
- Full name of the offender
- Offense committed
- Law violated
- Date of birth
- Physical description (e.g. race, height, weight, hair color, eye color, etc.)
- Pending charges
- Acquitted or dismissed charges
Before requesting these types of records, it’s important to know what it is that you’re specifically looking for. Common examples of criminal records include:
- Arrest records – reports created by law enforcement officers when a person is apprehended, detained or questioned in connection with a criminal complaint, criminal conduct, or a criminal investigation
- Arrest warrants – formal documents, issued by a judge or magistrate, that give law enforcement the authority to arrest an individual in connection with a crime once probable cause has been shown under oath
- Conviction records – usually appear on the criminal record for someone who has been declared guilty by a jury or court or has entered a guilty plea in a criminal case
- Parole records – information on persons who have been released from a correctional facility and are serving their sentence under the supervision of correctional officers, as permitted by the Alabama Bureau of Pardon and Paroles (ABPP)
- Probation records – orders of District or Circuit Courts giving a convicted person the opportunity to avoid incarceration under the supervision of law enforcement officers
Note: Juvenile criminal records are maintained by the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center and are confidential under Alabama laws. Only the child’s parents, legal guardians, attorneys, or other representatives can access them. A court may only order their disclosure in the interest of the child or national security.
Requests for these types of information should be submitted to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) by completing the ALEA Application to Review Alabama Criminal History Record Information (CHRI) form on the Agency’s website.
Anyone requesting this background check must be fingerprinted, provide valid identification, submit the completed form, and pay $25 in the form of a money order or Cashier’s check at:
301 S. Ripley Street
Montgomery, AL 36104
Or by mail at:
P.O. Box 1511
Montgomery, AL 36102-1511
Anyone who requests criminal offender record information under false pretenses will be subject to felony criminal penalties. Any misuse of this system will be aggressively prosecuted. For more information, you may contact ALEA at 1-866-740-4762 or 334-353-4340 Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m.
Sex Offender Listing
Information on Alabama’s 16,000+ sex offenders can be found via the ALEA Sex Offender Registry, with the exception of juveniles, youthful offenders, and those with out-of-state status. Offenders are required to regularly report to law enforcement with changes of residency or employment. They must also appear periodically for current photos and fingerprints.
Jail and Inmate Records
Jail and inmate records contain information on individuals currently incarcerated or in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC). Online public access to this information is available on the ADOC inmate search website.
This database allows people to locate current inmates but does not contain any historical data. Information that can be obtained may include the inmate’s location, year of birth, offense committed, possible parole, and sentencing, as well as their Alabama Institutional Serial Number (AIS).
Information about juvenile delinquents is not available on the offender search. Information on inmates being held in county jails may also not appear.
Since court records must be obtained from the specific court that heard the case, it’s important to understand the structure of the Alabama court system and the types of cases each court hears.
Here’s a breakdown of the Alabama courts and the cases they handle. Statewide maps with links to the contact information for each court are available online and linked below.
- State supreme court – reviews decisions reached by the lower courts
- Court of civil appeals – rules on appeals from state administrative agencies and district courts regarding domestic situations (e.g. divorce, child custody, adoptions, etc.) and civil cases from $10,000 – $50,000
- Court of criminal appeals – hears appeals on felony and misdemeanor cases
- Circuit courts (41) – handles the majority of legal matters, both criminal and civil, and appeals from lower courts
- District courts (67) – one in each county, handles criminal misdemeanors and civil claims between $3,000 – $10,000
- Municipal courts (273) – found in most cities, handles municipal violations and criminal misdemeanors within its police jurisdiction
- Probate courts (68) – hear cases regarding guardianships, wills, estates, land partitions, etc.
- Circuit courts (41) – handles the majority of legal matters, both criminal and civil, and appeals from lower courts
- Juvenile court – handles civil and criminal cases involving minors
- Small claims court – handles civil cases under $3,000
Alacourt Access offers access to all court records in the State of Alabama, including traffic, domestic, civil, and criminal trials. Examples include:
- Child support cases
- Civil records
- Criminal records
- Domestic relations
- Small claims records
- State traffic records
The information provided by this service includes:
- Party(ies) information
- Setting dates
- Case action summary
- Court action
- Financial information
The cost is $9.99 per case, which can be searched by name or case number. Images are $5.00 for the first 20 pages and $.50 for each page thereafter. Case monitoring is also available for the lifetime of a case. The cost is $19.99 for district cases and $29.99 for circuit cases.
What is a misdemeanor?
Misdemeanors are offenses that can be punished with imprisonment, fines, or merely hard labor. They range from Class A, with fines up to $6,000, to the less severe Class B and Class C which carry a maximum term of up to six and three months of jail time or $3,000 and $5000 in fines, respectively.
Incarceration for a misdemeanor is generally served in a county jail. Records relating to misdemeanor offenders and their offenses remain with the state as part of the offender’s criminal background.
Here are some examples of offenses that are considered misdemeanors according to Alabama law:
- 3rd-degree assault
- Disorderly conduct
- Possession of drug paraphernalia
- Public lewdness
- Resisting arrest
What is classified as a felony?
In the state of Alabama, a criminal conviction for a felony offense comes with the highest penalty possible, which ranges from 366 days in prison to the death sentence. Felonies are usually crimes resulting in grave danger or destruction to life and property.
Additional prison time is often imposed if a convicted felon has also been convicted of another felony in the past. The length of the additional penalty depends on the class of the previous felony and the number of previous convictions.
Common felonies include:
- Armed robbery
- Human trafficking
How are serious traffic violations classified?
Under Alabama law, serious traffic violations are those that involve willful or wanton disregard for the safety or rights of property or persons. Depending on the severity, a serious traffic offense could be classified as a felony or a misdemeanor and punished accordingly.
Some examples of serious traffic violations include:
- Driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance
- Driving on a suspended license
- Fleeing or trying to escape police pursuit
- Vehicular homicide
- Leaving the scene of an accident
Vital records are those kept under governmental authority to record life events. Here are some of the most common types and how they can be obtained.
- Birth certificates
- Marriage licenses
- Marriage certificates
- Separation agreements
- Divorce decrees
- Death certificates
- Civil unions/domestic partnerships
Vital records for birth, death, marriage, and divorce in Alabama can be obtained via the Vital Records Request application form. However, birth certificates under 125 years old and death certificates under 25 years old are restricted to immediate family members or anyone who can demonstrate a legal right to the record.
Anyone who falsely applies for these records could face up to three months in the county jail or a monetary fine of up to $500.
The cost is $15.00 for the first copy and $6.00 for each additional copy. Forms and payment (check or money order only) can be taken to your local Alabama County Health Department or mailed to:
Alabama Department of Public Health
Center for Health Statistics
P.O. Box 5625
Montgomery, Alabama 36103-5625
Requests can be expedited or ordered online. For more information, visit www.alabamapublichealth.gov/vitalrecords or call 334-206-5418.
Accident reports can be ordered via the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency website. The cost is $15.00 per report plus a $2.00 processing fee. Payment can be made with all major credit cards.
You will need to allow up to ten business days from the date of the accident to ensure that the report is available online. To request access to the report, you must first agree to the Federal Driver Privacy Protection Act statement.
You will then enter your contact information in case there is a problem retrieving the report. Reports can be searched by driver’s name, driver’s license number, or crash report number if you have it.
Once the list of search results appears it’s important to make sure you select the correct report, since payment is not refundable. Once payment is entered, the PDF report can be viewed and printed.
You will also receive an email confirmation with the crash report number and a confirmation number. Once the report has been viewed it is only accessible for seven days. Adobe Reader (which can be downloaded for free) is required to view the report.
Questions about crash reports should be directed to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency at (334) 517-2800.
Motor Vehicle Records
Vehicle title and registration records are available from the Alabama Department of Revenue via the Motor Vehicle Title Registration & Insurance Portal. Requests can be submitted online, and title and registration records are available for up to ten years following their issue date.
Additional motor vehicle records are available through Alabama.gov for the following:
- Current Registration Record (includes the current owner or operator, their address, and the year/make/model of the vehicle)
- Current Title Record (includes the same as the above, plus the lienholder)
- Vehicle Information Check (includes the year, make, model, odometer reading, and vehicle brands)
- Abandoned Motor Vehicle Notification Information
The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) is a good resource to check the history of a vehicle you’re considering purchasing.
Business public records are records of incidents or actions recorded or filed with a government agency for tax or other regulatory requirements. They’re kept under the care of the Office of the Secretary of State and made available to the public in the interest of the filer.
Business public records could include:
- Federal, State, and County Tax Liens
- UCC Filings
These types of records can be accessed via the Office’s official website at www.sos.alabama.gov. However, some must be obtained in person for review.
Hugh Evans is the representative responsible for receiving record requests and any questions regarding public records policies. He can be reached via email at Hugh.Evans@sos.alabama.gov or 334-353-7857.
Request for records can be made online at www.sos.alabama.gov/sos-office/request-public-information or by using this fillable PDF form, which can be printed and mailed to:
Public Records Request
Office of Secretary of State
P.O. Box 5616
Montgomery, AL 36103-5616
Upon approval, public records can be accessed during normal business hours from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Those inspecting public records are urged to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking while viewing records.
There is a cost of $1.00 for each page for copies of public records, with an additional charge of $1.50 to have the Alabama state seal affixed. Any certificate requested with the state seal affixed will be $5.00.
Consumer Protection Agencies
Various city, country, regional, and state consumer agencies can provide information that may be helpful to citizens. These agencies are responsible for protecting consumers by conducting tasks such as:
- Mediating complaints
- Conducting investigations
- Prosecuting offenders of consumer laws
- Licensing and regulating professional service providers
- Offering education materials
- Advocating for consumer rights
Here are a few of those offices and the areas of service they provide.
The Alabama Office of the Attorney General accepts consumer complaints and offers resources for verifying business licenses. Their services are available online or by calling 334-242-7335 or 1-800-392-5658.
The State Banking Department regulates and supervises state-chartered banks, as well as other types of financial institutions. They can also answer general questions about banking and consumer credit. They can be reached at 334-242-3452 or 1-866-465-2279.
The state Department of Insurance enforces the laws and regulations governing all types of insurance. They can also help consumers by providing information to help them make informed decisions when buying insurance. You can reach them by calling 334-241-4141 or 1-800-433-3966.
The Alabama Securities Commission enforces the laws and regulations for securities and securities brokers who sell mutual funds, stocks, commodities, and other investment products. They’re also available to provide general information concerning investments. Phone numbers for this agency are 334-242-2984 and 1-800-222-1253.
The Alabama Public Service Commission regulates the rates and services for utilities within the state. This includes gas, electricity, telephone service, and a few other services.
This agency, which can be reached at 334-242-5218 or 1-800-392-8050, also handles consumer complaints and conducts investigations.
Extensive records and research are available through the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Their collections include county records and newspapers on microfilm, maps, church and synagogue records, and more.
Their digital files include a wealth of legal documents, publications, and photos. They also have soldier and voter registration databases, military records, city directories, and Alabama fast facts.
Their services include digitization and reproduction, ancestry research, and requests for specific research via an online form.
How do I access or request other public records in Alabama?
The public records laws in Alabama do not specify the exact method for submitting a request for open records. Nor does it state whether both written and verbal requests are acceptable. Furthermore, departments are not required to designate an official representative to handle requests for public records.
Consequently, the procedures vary from one department to another. The best approach is to consult the website of each agency to determine their requirements. Here are a few examples.
Office of the Governor
Requests for records from the Governor’s Office may be made using the official “Request to View Public Records” form found on their website.
The form must be filled out in writing and mailed to:
600 Dexter Avenue, Room N-103
Montgomery, AL 36130
Fax: (334) 242-2335
Requests may also be sent by email to email@example.com.
Upon receipt, the Governor’s Legal Office will determine whether the requested information is in their possession and subject to disclosure. They will then provide the requestor with an estimated research cost.
Research starts at $23.00 per hour (one hour minimum), plus expenses. Payment must be made before documents may be viewed. Upon payment, the results are generally available within ten days.
Once obtained, the Legal Office will further review them to ensure they are subject to disclosure, at which point the documents will be made available for viewing or sent to the requestor by mail or email.
You may request to view the records between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Items not kept in printed form may be unavailable for viewing. If copies are requested, you should allow seven days following payment.
The cost is $.25 per single-sided page. Color copies or copies of other types of media can be provided for an additional charge.
Department of Revenue
The form can also be printed and the completed form mailed to:
Open Record Requests
Alabama Department of Revenue
50 North Ripley Street, Room 4131
Montgomery, AL 36132-8510
Those wishing to inspect records in person may make an appointment through the Tax Policy and Governmental Affairs Division to review them during regular business hours of 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the offices of the Department of Revenue.
A valid form of identification is required. Again eating, drinking, and smoking are prohibited. Citizens may use their own equipment to make copies of available records. A charge of $1.00 applies for copies made using state-owned copiers. Citizens are also required to pay any other costs incurred by the Department in order to provide the records requested.
Questions about these policies can be directed to Kelley Gillikin, Acting Tax Policy and Governmental Affairs Division at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334-242-1380.
Office of State Treasurer
Requests to the Treasury Department may also be submitted using an online form at https://treasury.alabama.gov/public-records-request/. Those inquiring about records for Unclaimed Property are asked to first review the pertinent laws.
Department of Transportation
Requests from ALDOT can be made online. The fillable PDF outlines the fees, mailing instructions, and what to expect once the request has been submitted.
Department of Education
The Alabama Department of Education website outlines its procedures for the request of records. All requests must be submitted in writing and signed by the requesting individual. They must also include sufficient information for the Department to determine exactly what is being requested.
Requests may be mailed to:
Office of General Counsel
Alabama Department of Education
50 N. Ripley Street, Room 5103
P. O. Box 302101
Montgomery, AL 36130
The cost for copying of records is $1.00 for the first 25 pages and $.50 for each subsequent page. A $5.00 fee is also charged for each request, plus the cost for the postage if the requestor chooses to have the records mailed. Fragile records may require additional fees.
A complete copy of the State Board of Education Administrative Rules may be requested for $50.00. Additional charges may apply for fragile records. Requests to inspect records must be made during normal business hours.
Relevant Legal Cases
Throughout the years a number of court cases have had an impact on the way the Freedom of Information Act and the Alabama Public Records laws have been interpreted in the state of Alabama.
Here are a few notable ones.
- Brewer v. Watson (Brewer III) (1882)
- Holcombe v. State ex rel. Chandler (1941)
- Miglionico v. Birmingham News Company (1979)
- Stone v. Consolidated Publishing Co (1981)
- Dale v. Birmingham News (1984)
- Chambers v. Birmingham News Co (1989)
- Blankenship v. City of Hoover (1991)
- Montgomery Advertiser v. Montgomery County Board of Education (1991)
- Dunn v. Alabama State University Board of Trustees (1993)
- Slawson & Furman v. Alabama Forestry Commission (1994)
- Water Works & Sewer Board of the City of Talladega v. Consolidated Publishing Inc. (2004)
Alabama Public Records Transparency
Much controversy has surfaced over the access, or lack thereof, to public records in the state of Alabama. The Better Government Association and the National Freedom of Information Coalition regularly conduct studies to gauge the transparency of each state regarding access to public records.
In 2007 the state earned a score of zero, out of a possible 100, concerning its responsiveness to Freedom of Information requests. The study ranked Alabama 49th of the 50 states.
The state ranked 48th in a similar 2008 study, with an overall score of 34.9 percent with regards to transparency.
Appeals for Denial of Records Requests
Requests for records may, on occasion, be delayed or even outrightly denied. It’s important to note here that the state of Alabama has no formal appeals process for the delay or denial of a request for public records. As a result, the only recourse is a civil action, which can be time consuming and expensive.
There are legislators fighting for greater transparency in Alabama’s public records request process, including timetables for responses, limits on fees for copying records, and a more affordable appeals process.
These are parameters that many other states have in place already. However, at present no official reform has been made in Alabama.
For this reason, it’s important to know and understand Alabama’s public records laws and procedures before requesting records and be prepared for some hurdles or a potentially long process.
If you have additional questions concerning access to public records in the state of Alabama, visit Alabama.gov for a listing of state agencies you can contact directly to potentially assist you in your request for public records.