Washington Public Records

This article aims to provide a comprehensive guide on searching, obtaining, and examining public records in the State of Washington.

An overview of the primary Washington public records categories will be provided, including detailed information on how to search for and examine them, how to acquire copies, what forms you need to fill out, and what fees to pay, if any are involved.

We will also talk about what to do if you cannot easily locate the records you are seeking online. Usually, the best procedure to follow is to contact the government agency in charge or use one of several third-party services specializing in public records acquisition.

This article includes information on the following types of public record:

  • How the State of Washington defines public records
  • Acquiring national public records
  • Criminal history records
  • Inmate and conviction records
  • Sex offender records
  • Court case records
  • Driving records
  • Business records, filings, and UCC records
  • Property and land records
  • Vital records (birth, death, marriage, divorce)
  • Historical and archival records

What Are Public Records?

Public records allow citizens to inspect documents about how government and public bodies conduct their business. In some cases, public records laws allow private citizens the right to access limited information on other citizens. This is most commonly the case with vital statistics and business filings, but privacy laws afford many exceptions.

Privacy laws exist in conjunction with public records laws. This ensures that no private (primarily financial) information ever gets released where individuals are identified on a public record. That information will be redacted or deleted from the document you receive.

Citizens have the right to access public records to ensure a fair and just society. A healthy democracy is founded on the premise that the governments that represent their citizens must be open to their citizens.

Over the last few decades, public records have become digitized and available online. Digital records are now the standard way of acquiring most public records today. However, some records will be more readily available than others.

Depending on the record, you may have to travel to a courthouse, police station, or government archive to access the original document. There is often a copying or processing fee involved.

Typically access to public records is overseen by the Attorney General of the state in question. Public records deal with governmental affairs and information about law enforcement, business licensing, property ownership, court cases, vital statistics, and documentation about citizens residing in the state.

How the State of Washington Defines Public Records

In Washington, the law overseeing public records rules is the Public Disclosure Act, Chapter 42.56. This law’s mission is to give Washington residents the right to obtain and view public records. The Public Disclosure Act lays out guidelines for accessing these records and for which types of records there are exceptions. If a record is exempt from the rules of this act, it is considered confidential.

The Public Disclosure Act of Washington states that a record is public if it involves or relates to the conduct or performance of government and its functions. It applies to any document prepared, used, or retained by any agency at the state or local level. These agencies can include city, county, district, or similar government entities. This record can be written, recorded, a picture, an electronic disk, magnetic tape, CD, or email.

All local and state government agencies are considered public entities and therefore are subject to public records laws. Every public entity is required to maintain records for public inspection. Judicial departments are also subject to the laws of this act.

What are the Exemptions to Accessing Public Records?

Unless a law specifically exempts them, all records maintained by a public agency are open for public inspection. Individuals are allowed to access these records under the most reasonable conditions. They are permitted to make copies of those records upon paying the appropriate fee.

You may also have to provide specific information to complete your request, and the agency may require you to confirm your intentions with the record. This ensures its disclosure does not violate certain laws.

Not all records, nor all information in a record, can be made publicly available. Some of this information can be withheld. The Public Records Act (RCW 42.56) lists the kinds of information exempt from public records law. There may be other exemptions found elsewhere in state and federal law.

Most exemptions are designed to protect the right to privacy of other individuals. Some exemptions exist to protect investigations, whether by law enforcement or another agency with investigative responsibilities. It also protects the business interests of Washington’s citizens. If you are unsure about a specific exemption listed in the Public Records Act, you can consult with the agency’s records officer.

Generally speaking, a document in its entirety cannot be withheld if only certain parts of it are exempt from disclosure. In these cases, that information will be deleted from the document. If the entire record must be withheld, then it must be certified that the document in its entirety fell under one of the exemptions and was therefore not available as a matter of public record.

If you are denied access, the agency must provide the specific exemption or law. The agency is responsible for justifying the denial and explaining how the exemption is applied to your records request in particular.

The agency is, however, not required to produce a new record collecting the information you seek. If the record does not exist at the time of the request, it cannot be produced. The more precisely a citizen can identify the particular record they seek, the faster the department will be able to assist you.

Federal Public Records Laws

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the central federal law stipulating that government records must remain open to the public unless exceptions exist.

Instituted in 1967, the FOIA allows public access to the actions of the Federal Government of the United States. Most individual states have their own individual statutes and laws surrounding collecting and disseminating public records, but they all follow a similar format to the federal regulations.

The Privacy Act of 1974 is closely associated with the FOIA. Whereas the FOIA grants public access to information about the actions and topics of the federal government, it does not cover rules surrounding access to information about private individuals.

The Federal Privacy Act, on the other hand, details the rules for accessing records about individuals. The Federal Privacy Act allows individuals the right to view and make copies of files about themselves. It also allows other public entities to use this personal data in a variety of limited situations:

  • Historical and genealogical research
  • Because a court of law has authorized it
  • As needed by law enforcement agencies
  • If medically necessary

More information on how to make an FOIA request can be found through the FOIA government website. This website is run by the United States Department of Justice and therefore deals with federal, not state, laws.

Important Links

Acquiring Records from Washington State Agencies

This section will look at how to request a public record from a state agency or public body. These would be records about the daily business of the departments or agencies or documents about their functions.

Requests can be initiated in person, by mail or email, or over the phone. Use the Access Washington Government Agencies directory to find the contact details for

Information on tribal government agencies and bodies can be found in the Washington Tribal Directory. You can also obtain state agencies’ addresses and phone numbers by calling the Olympia area IO at 1-800-321-2808.

Each local and state agency must assist the public in attaining records and assist them in the process of obtaining them. If you make a request, the agency is obligated by law to follow through with the request unless the material is exempted. Making your request as specific as possible will help the custodian of the records identify and provide what you are looking for.

Most agencies will ask you to fill out a public records request form. Additionally, if you decide you want copies of a record, the agency is compelled to provide them. Copying fees may apply.

Each local and state agency also compiles an index of its public records. This index can be made available upon request and is meant to assist the public in locating the records currently held.

How Will the Agency Respond?

Agencies must respond to your request within five business days after they receive your request. Within that time frame, the agency must do one of three things:

  • Present the requestor with the records.
  • Give you an estimate of how long it will take to respond to the request.
  • Deny the request in a written statement establishing the reasons for the denial.

If your request to the agency is unclear, they may ask you for more information.

If a denial occurs, the requestor can, within two business days, ask the agency to conduct a review of the denial. If the review agrees with the initial verdict, the agency’s denial is final.

Additionally, the agency may notify individuals listed on this record that the record has been requested. The individuals or agencies listed on the record may ask a court for a record exemption. If granted, this would prevent the disclosure of the record.

Public Records Ombudsman

The role of the Public Access Ombudsman is to act as a mediator in disputes regarding the Public Records Act. If a requester and the custodian of the record in question are unable to resolve any issue that comes up in the record accessing process, the ombudsman becomes involved.

The Public Access Ombudsman resolves issues that come up about pending requests for public access to information. This office operates independently of the Office of the Attorney General. However, the Attorney General appoints the Ombudsman and provides them with staff and office space.

You can contact the Washington ombudsman by email at:

publicrecords@atg.wa.gov

You can phone the ombudsman at (390) 753-6200.

Washington Criminal History Records

What Are Criminal Records?

When an individual is arrested or apprehended by a law enforcement entity or charged with a crime, a criminal record is created. Criminal records are frequently used when deciding sentencing during a criminal trial. Regardless of conviction, arrest records can remain public for a long time after the trial. Citizens can access these records if they properly apply for them.

Criminal records and histories are more thorough than arrest records. Arrest records typically contain information about the arrest along with warrants, third-party complaints, convictions, and dropped cases.

Criminal histories can include warrant records. These records detail any warrants for arrest issued by magistrates or judges against an individual. Arrest warrants grant law enforcement the authority to arrest individuals suspected of a crime and/or seize their property.

What Charges Can Appear on a Washington Criminal History?

In Washington, charges fall into two classes: Misdemeanors and Felonies.

Misdemeanors in Washington – Washington defines misdemeanors as the least serious of the two offense classifications. In Washington, misdemeanors will face no more than one year in prison. Fines or community service are often additional punishments. Repeat offenders can be upgraded to a felony.

There are two kinds of a misdemeanor in Washington:

  • Gross Misdemeanor – maximum prison sentence of 364 days, maximum fine $5,000.
  • Simple Misdemeanor – maximum prison sentence of 90 days and a fine of $1,000.

Felonies in Washington – Felony offenses in Washington are crimes punishable by jail sentences of at least one year. Felonies can also include tough conditions and significant finds. Examples of felonies include arson, forgery, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, and murder.

There are three classes of a felony in Washington, with Class A being the most serious and Class C being the least serious offense.

  • Class A: punishable by a max life term in prison and/or a fine of up to $50,000.
  • Class B: punishable by a 10-year prison sentence and/or a fine of up to $20,000.
  • Class C: punishable by up to a 5-year prison sentence and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

There is a felony that sits above Class A, and that is aggravated first-degree murder. It is sometimes punished by a death sentence.

Accessing a Criminal History in Washington

Many criminal justice agencies are allowed to request and receive unrestricted access to criminal history record information. The Washington State Police Identification and Criminal History Records Section provides this information. These records are most often used for the purposes of criminal justice.

The public is allowed to make criminal history record information requests as well. These requests will be for non-criminal justice purposes only, and their information is more limited than those accessible to criminal justice agencies. Only conviction information and arrests less than a year old and with dispositions pending will appear on this record. Information about sex and kidnapping offenders will also be provided on this record if applicable.

How to Obtain a Background Check Online Through WATCH

You can run a background check online and receive immediate results. Use the Washington Access to Criminal History online portal (WATCH). You will need a credit card to process your payment or a non-profit account.

The fee is $11.00.

You can also have your WATCH RAP sheet verified by fingerprint comparison. Simply put your right thumbprint on the lower right corner of the front of the report. Mail the form with a thumbprint, as well as a letter that explains your request, to the following address:


Washington State Patrol,
Identification and Background Check Section
PO Box 42633,
Olympia, WA 98504-2633
No additional fees will be added for the thumbprint verification, but notarized letters can also be purchased online for an additional $10.00.

How to Obtain a Background Check by Mail

Complete the Request for Conviction Criminal History Form. There is a fee of $32.00 for processing the records request. You can pay this fee with a money order or check. You can also pay by filling out a Bank Card Authorization Form.

Once you have filled out the relevant form, mail it with the fees to the following address:


Washington State Patrol
Identification and Background Check Section
PO Box 42633
Olympia, WA 98504-2633
It costs $58.00 to process fingerprint cards. You must provide the fingerprints by going to the Olympia office at


106 11th Avenue SW
Suite 1300, Olympia
98501
An additional fee of $16.00 payable by cash, check, or credit card is required for the fingerprinting event to take place. A valid photo ID is required. View the Fingerprint Room Rules for more information on the procedure.

Non-Conviction Record Review

This can only be inspected at the Washington State Patrol Criminal History Records Section, and the copy can only be reviewed during business hours, Monday through Friday. There is no fee to inspect a complete CHRI. This document includes all non-conviction information on your record.

Fingerprints are required to establish a positive ID.

National Background Checks

Many newer Washington laws require fingerprint-based national background searches for employment purposes. You can either obtain these federal checks at the Office of Attorney General, Washington State Police, or your local PD.

The types of employment required to obtain these background are:

  • Financial agents
  • Alarm companies
  • Electronic vendors, or vendors of precious metals.
  • Private security guards
  • Operators of a nursery school and its employees
  • Daycare operators
  • Adult daycare employees
  • Long term care employees
  • Nurses

A National background check costs $35.00.

When you arrive at the Attorney General’s Office, a fingerprint technician will take your prints with a LiveScan machine. These prints are sent to the FBI, returning an FBI-generated background check to the Attorney Generals’ office.

Once the Attorney General’s office receives the FBI’s report, the fingerprint technician will go over your information with you and indicate whether or not a ‘disqualifying offense’ was found. If such an offense were found on a record, they would receive a letter informing them of the crime and provide them with a copy of your background report.

There are three options for requesting an Identity History Summary from the FBI.

  1. Electronically – submit a request online at the linked-to address, then follow the steps outlined under “Obtaining Your ID History Summary.” Visit a participating Post Office to submit fingerprints electronically. This must be done after you have electronically submitted the form and payment.
  2. By Mail – Fill out the Applicant Information Form. Include with it your complete mailing address, telephone number, and email address. Also include fingerprints rolled on a standard fingerprint form. Your results will be returned via First-Class mail. Pay by credit card via mail by filling out a credit card payment form or obtain a money order for $18.00 made payable to the United States Treasury. Mail everything to the following address:


FBI CJIS Division – Summary Request
1000 Custer Hollow Road
Clarksburg, WV 26306
FBI-Approved Channeler – a private business that will submit the FBI request on your behalf.

Washington Sex Offender Registry

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs maintains the Washington Sex Offender Public Registry. The Sex Offender Registry lists individuals required to register due to a conviction for sex- crimes.

Either 10-year or lifetime registrations are possible, and the public has full access to the registry. The registry’s purpose is to provide the public with information regarding the whereabouts of registered offenders in Washington.

Periodically, registrants must provide address verifications, but registrants may move and fail to notify the bureau of their address change. Any offender convicted in Washington who moves elsewhere will have their information maintained in the registry until their obligation expires.

However, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs cannot guarantee the accuracy of the registry’s information but makes every effort to ensure the information contained therein is up to date and accurate.

The National Sex Offender website can be consulted to corroborate your search further.

In Washington, sex offenders are adults who have committed a Class A, B, or C felony or a gross misdemeanor. This requires them to register for life, ten years, or fifteen years. The relevant laws for sex offenders are covered in the following documents:

View the Registered Sex Offender Information Sheet for more information on the registry.

Washington Inmate Records

Any person who has entered the Washington corrections system has an inmate record. Both municipal and county jails, as well as state prisons, keep inmate records. The records are made in the jurisdiction in which the prisoner is held. That facility itself most often manages the records.

Like in other states, Washington maintains a database of inmates to allow interested parties to find them.

The following details are often contained in these records:

  • Name and known aliases
  • Details of their offense
  • Personal information
  • Date of prison entry
  • Potential release date
  • Information about the facility (address, security level)
  • Past convictions or sentences
  • Bail/bond conditions

You can search for inmates incarcerated in Washington at the Department of Corrections Inmate Search Page.

Victim Identification and Notification

The Victim Identification and Notification system (VINE) allows victims to be kept up to date on offender status. Data in the VINE system is backed from county jails, state-run prisons, and juvenile detention centers. Alerts are sent to subscribers whenever an incarcerated individual’s location changes, when they are released, or if they are being considered for parole.

VINE is free to join, and there is no way for offenders to know an individual has been registered. Offenders will not know if or when you have been notified about changes in their circumstances.
VINE notifications are sent in accordance with state public records laws.

Conviction Records

Conviction records come from the final judgment of the courts or pronouncements about criminal cases before them. It means the prosecution was successful in proving their case against an offender. The offender has responded by either pleading guilty or entering no contest.

Convictions are frequently followed by sentencing, which includes fines, incarceration, community service, probation, or other forms of punishment permitted by the law.

Conviction records can be accessed by contacting whichever Washington Courthouse the trial took place at. Use the following links to view a list of Washington courts:

Washington Driving Records

If you are buying a copy of your own Washington Driving Record, it will show whether or not you have:

  • Violations
  • Citations
  • Convictions
  • Collisions
  • Departmental Actions

Driving records also go by the following names: driving abstract, abstract driving record, and driver’s abstract. You can learn more about the different kinds of driving records available. The cost is $13.00.

You can access your driving record online or by mail. If you are a Washington resident, log in to License eXpress and purchase your own driving record.

Or you can fill out a Driving Record Request form. Allow ten business days for processing. Pay the fee with a check or money order made payable to the Department of Licensing. Mail it to the following address:


Driver Records
Department of Licensing
PO Box 3907,
Seattle, WA 98124-3907
Contact (360) 902-3900 if you have any questions about applying for your Driving Record.

If you want to purchase another person’s driving record, you must be one of the individuals or company types listed below to do so. Under all other circumstances, driving records are confidential.

  • Attorneys
  • Law or other justice-related government agencies
  • Prospective employers or current employers
  • Insurance companies
  • Transit authority
  • Various volunteer organizations
  • School districts
  • State universities, colleges, and local government bodies

If you are one of those individuals or business types, you must get a Driving Record Release of Interest form filled out by the driver before making your request.

Create a business account to purchase the driving records online. Your purchase will be available within one business day, and you can print a copy for up to 30 days.

You can request someone else driving record by mail by filling out a Driving Record Request form. Allow ten business days for processing. Pay the fee with a check or money order made payable to the Department of Licensing. Mail it to the following address:


Driver Records
Department of Licensing
PO Box 3907,
Seattle, WA 98124-3907

Washington Business Records, Filings, and Licensing

By law, many business records are available for the public to search and view. The Department of State of Washington maintains these records. There are two ways to access these records.

Search for a business name in the online business registry database and view the digital files available in the registry.

If the file you are looking for is not available in the above database, you can submit a copy request form to have a copy mailed to you for a fee. Use the following steps to search the business registry database:

  • Select the type of search you want to complete by clicking on the four available options: entity name, business ID number, business filing number, or individual’s name.
  • When searching by an entity or individual name, you will also be able to select one of the following search methods: ‘exact match,’ ‘begins with,’ ‘full text’ (available only for entity name search), or’ index search.’
  • If an entity or individual name is selected, the results will list all registered businesses that resemble the search criteria.
  • Choose any of the results by clicking the hyperlink. This will display a summary of all the publicly available information on the business entity.
  • You can also reach the summary by selecting and entering the business’s ID number directly on the search page.
  • You can select ‘filing’ or ‘activity’ to display specific filing from the summary screen, and a list of filings will be returned. You can also search by filing number on the original search page.
  • If there is no hyperlink available, that means there is no electronic record available for that filing. However, if there is, you can download a pdf document of the file by clicking on the hyperlink.

In addition to the business registry database, the Office of the Secretary of State of Washington offers many publicly available business statistics on business, notary, and UCC filings. You can view digital reports up to the present day on the Washington Statistics and Reports Page page.

Search Washington Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) Records

The Secretary of State for Washington offers a UCC record search portal where you can find most digital images of publicly available files. If a digital file is not available, you can use an information request form to have a copy mailed to you.

Washington Vital Statistics

Vital records include documents covering vital events in the State of Washington. Vital events include birth, death, stillbirth, marriage, divorce, and annulment. Various records cover these topics, including certified copies with state seals acknowledging each event’s time, place, and location. Non-certified informational copies are usually available to any interested members of the public.

You can apply to receive birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates directly from the Washinton State Department of Health. Third-party services do exist, but the fastest and least expensive way to acquire these documents is by one of three approved options:

  • Order from the Department of Health
  • Order from local state or county department of health
  • Order through VitalCheck, Washington’s contracted vendor for vital certificates.

Vital records rules and laws changed on January 1, 2021. These laws pertain to birth and death certificates. From now on, only individuals with specific relationships to the person whose name appears on the record can request a certified copy of the record. ID and proof of relationship will be required. The Certificate Fee is now $25.00.

Ordering Birth Records

Birth records exist from July 1907 to the present day. Certified copies are available for legal purposes. Non-Certified informational copies are available for genealogical use. Three birth record products are available:

  • Birth certificate
  • Heirloom birth certificate
  • Non-Certified birth record

Only individuals who have qualifying relationships with the person listed on the record can receive a certified or Heirloom certificate. These individuals are:

  • Listed on the record
  • Spouse/partner
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Stepparents
  • Stepchildren
  • Siblings
  • Grandparents/grandchildren
  • Great-grandparents/great-grandchildren
  • Legal guardian/representatives
  • Government agency
  • Courts

If the requestor cannot provide proof of relationship, they cannot receive the record, and a refund will not be issued.

It costs $25.00 for each of the certificates, and you must provide the following information:

  • Name (first, middle, last) of the subject on the record
  • Date of birth
  • City or county of birth
  • Full names of parents listed on record

Submit a Birth Certificate Mail Order Form along with a check or money order payable to the Department of Health. Provide a copy of valid government identification and your proof of qualifying relationship.

Mail your order form, supporting documents, and fees to the following address:


Department of Health
Center for Health Statistics
PO Box 9709
Olympia, WA 98507
Fill out the Information Copy Request Form for a non-certified copy of a birth certificate. Anyone can fill out this request form regardless of their relationship with the individual.

Ordering Death Records

Death records exist from July 1907 to the present day. Certified copies are available for legal purposes. Non-Certified informational copies are available for genealogical or informational use. Four death record products are available:

  • Long-form death certificate
  • Short-form death certificate
  • Fetal death certificate
  • Non-Certified death record

Only individuals who have qualifying relationships with the person listed on the record can receive a certified certificate. These individuals include the following:

  • Listed on the record
  • Spouse/partner
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Stepparents
  • Stepchildren
  • Siblings
  • Grandparents/grandchildren
  • Great-grandparents/great-grandchildren
  • Legal guardian/representatives
  • Government agency
  • Courts
  • Next of kin
  • Funeral director

If the requestor cannot provide proof of relationship, they cannot receive the record, and a refund will not be issued.

It costs $25.00 for each of the certificates, and you must provide the following information:

  • Name (first, middle, last) of the deceased person on the record
  • Date of death (or approximate)
  • City or county of death

Submit a Long Form Death Certificate Application Form along with a check or money order payable to the Department of Health. Provide a copy of valid government identification and your proof of qualifying relationship.

Mail your order form, supporting documents, and fees to the following address:


Department of Health
Center for Health Statistics
PO Box 9709
Olympia, WA 98507
Fill out the Information Copy Request Form for a non-certified copy of a death certificate. Anyone can fill out this request form regardless of their relationship with the individual. Use the Fetal Death Certificate Order Form to receive a fetal death certificate.

Ordering Marriage and Divorce Records

Marriage and divorce records in Washington are available from 1968 to the present day. You can receive marriage and divorce records for the State of Washington from the Department of Health. You can also request a letter of single status if you intend on traveling to a foreign country to get married.

The cost is $25.00 per certified, and anyone can apply for a marriage or divorce certificate without giving proof of relationship.

Submit a Marriage and Divorce Certificate Order Form, along with the appropriate payment made out to the Department of Health. Mail the form to the following address:


Department of Health
Center for Health Statistics
PO Box 9709
Olympia, WA 98507
The fastest way to get your order is to go to the Olympia office in person. Most people will get their orders within the same day. You can also use VitalChek online, an approved third-party vendor. They can process online or phone orders within three business days.

If you have applied by mail, you can expect to receive the order within five or six weeks after the payment is processed.

For marriages that occurred before 1968, contact the county auditor’s office wherever the marriage license was obtained and see if they have any information regarding the record in question.