“Public records” is an all-encompassing term referring to a database of government records and information. This database is managed by various government agencies including federal, state, and local agencies.
The public has access to this information with agencies managing retrieval, fees, and how to obtain them. Public records include court records, criminal records, arrest reports, vital records, driving records, and business records.
Public records also include communications between government officials, records, and communications relating to government agencies, budgets, memos, meeting minutes, and several other items. There are different ways people can access public records depending on the state and its laws.
There can be exemptions to some records and some can be provided with redactions. Fees can also be charged, although West Virginia is stricter about fee limitations than other states.
Public record access isn’t limited to government agencies. Public records exist in other ways, such as legal notice publications in newspapers, regulatory websites, professional organizations, lobbying groups, civic organizations, and not-for-profit groups. Those seeking information shouldn’t limit themselves to only government organizations as many others already have it on hand.
This can be helpful in cases where a government body wants to deny access to documents or where it would take an extended time to gather them. These organizations aren’t required to give you information as a government entity is as these groups are private.
However, many of these outside groups work willingly with those who ask for help in locating information.
West Virginia’s Records Mission
The State of West Virginia believes that all persons are, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, entitled to complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.
Which federal laws apply to public records in the United States?
Public access to information is regulated by the federal Freedom of Information Act. The act was created in 1966 to ensure the public had a right to gain government information. States adopt their own FOIA to define how the federal law is implemented.
State laws, like the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act, also outline fees, time frames for responding to requests, and the process for filing a request for public records and information. FOIA laws state anyone has a right to look at and copy any public record not falling into an exemption.
How does West Virginia define public records?
Public records are defined as any record generated by a government body. This includes standard records such as:
- Vital Records
- Business Records
However, public records go well beyond those categories. They also include meeting minutes of local or state government officials, councils and commissions, memos between agencies or public servants, government budgets, some disciplinary actions of government employees, public bids, government contracts, and historical records.
Public records in West Virginia have also expanded to include social media posts by agencies and employees acting on behalf of a government agency as the FOIA includes all written content “regardless of physical form or characteristics.”
The information listed in other forms of media from government or public agency websites to video posts are also included in the law giving the public access to information.
There are at least exemptions allowed under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Exemptions are found under WV Code 29B-1-4 (2002 Regular Session) include:
- Trade secrets could include but are not limited to a plan, pattern, process, mechanism, procedure production data, non-patented information, formula, tool, and compound.
- Personal information such as medical information where release would invade privacy.
- Information related to testing for licenses, employment, or school such as test questions and scoring keys.
- Law enforcement records relating to a criminal investigation or notes that are kept for internal use.Information that the statute specifically exempts.
- Historic records or documents that relate to the location of an undeveloped site of historical or scientific value such as land deemed prehistoric, archeological, paleontological, or battlefield sites.
- This also includes donations to the government where the donor applied restrictions or where handling could damage the record, document, archive, or manuscript. Information regarding operating, examination, or condition reports prepared by or for any agency overseeing or managing financial institutions.
- Reports that are required by law to be published in newspapers are part of public records. Internal memos or letters prepared for or received by a public entity. Records that are used to respond to terrorist threats or acts of terrorism where public knowledge would hurt public safety.
- Records and data that include terrorism vulnerability assessments or response plans, inventories, data, or collected items to respond to terrorism, including deployment plans and communication codes.
- Specific investigative records and intelligence regarding threats or terrorist acts shared between various law enforcement agencies including local, state, federal, and international agencies as well as the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
- Classified national security documents
- Security codes, programs, computing data, network passwords to respond to terrorism.
- Disaster recovery plans, tests, and risk assessment infrastructure information used in reacting to terrorism including designs, records, and maps.
- Facility security system codes.
- Public utility plant information includes engineering plans. Telecommunications customer proprietary information about the network.
- Information regarding facilities within the Division of Corrections, the Division of Juvenile Services, and the Regional Jail Authority relating to the design of facilities, and operational procedures.
This is not an all-inclusive list of exemptions but covers the most basic rules. It is best to see if your request violates an exemption before submitting it.
Where do I get West Virginia public records?
Public records in West Virginia can be obtained from several governmental bodies, depending on the type of record you are seeking. Many public records can be found online and some are free searches.
There is no state citizenship mandate to request public records so a requester can live outside the state. However, some public records are limited to be obtained only by the person listed on the record.
West Virginia also doesn’t require people to state a purpose for requesting public records. In fact, such questions by public entity officials are illegal.
All three branches of West Virginia’s government, from executive, judicial and legislative, are included in the Freedom of Information Act statute as it includes all “public bodies.” There is a strict five-day time limit to respond to a request for public documents.
Those seeking public documents can make an in-person request, but it is advised by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to make a formal written request to target specific information and be accurate with the mandated time frame for a response.
Even though the entity must respond to your request within five days, you may not receive the answer or the documents within that time frame. Answers mailed on the fifth day of response will be received according to mail time.
The response, if approved, will outline the time frame to receive the documents. The requester will then need to make arrangements to proceed with the request.
Be aware that many government agencies still operate under COVID-19 restrictions and continue to have limited hours of operation. Some allow visitors by appointment only. It is best to call an agency to find their operating hours and restrictions before visiting.
Here are some websites in West Virginia that will get you started:
Steps to take to access public records in West Virginia:
- Fill out a request for public records. Be specific with the type of records you want, including dates of records and as much information as possible.
- Send the form to the appropriate agency, email, or drop it off in person. If mailing, it is best to send it by certified mail to validate the five-day timeline for a response.
- Call the appropriate agency if you don’t receive a timely response. Be sure to allow for five days after your request is received plus mail time.
What are the fees for obtaining public records?
West Virginia doesn’t have set fees applied statewide. Each agency sets its fees and the cost is depending on the number of pages copied. State law only allows for the cost of reproduction and may not charge for searching for records or other costs of an hourly wage as part of copying records.
The cost for your specific request should be included in a letter responding to your request or listed on the websites where you order your records.
What happens after I submit a public records request?
You will get a response within five days telling you that either your request will be denied or fulfilled. It will list the cost of the documents as well as outline how long it will take to gather the documents and get them to you once you formally agree to pay the cost.
Typically, requesters must pay the fees upfront before obtaining the records. West Virginia doesn’t have an appeals process if a request for public documents is denied. Appeals can be sent to the Supervisor of Public Records, which is the custodian of the public records.
That office can work to encourage the public official or agency to comply with your request, but there are no penalties for non-compliance. There is no direct number to the Supervisor of Public Records but you can file a complaint with the Office of Constituent Services.
Office of Constituent Services
350 Capitol Street, Room 601
Charleston, WV 25301
West Virginia Attorney General, Main Office
State Capitol Complex, Bldg. 1, Room E-26
Charleston, WV 25305
There are several levels of courts in West Virginia ranging from local magistrate courts to the state supreme court. Each of the 55 counties has at least two magistrate court judges with some, like Kanawha County, having as many as 10 judges.
West Virginia has 31 circuit courts and 75 circuit court judges. It also has 55 superior courts. West Virginia has a state Supreme Court of Appeals and two federal district courts.
There are also other types of courts such as probate and family court.
Magistrates can hear civil cases where the disputed amount is less than $5,000.They are the judges closest to the public as they deal with the most basic types of cases.
Besides lower-claim civil cases, magistrate judges also hear misdemeanor criminal cases and oversee many administrative actions like record affidavits, issue search and arrest warrants, record complaints, set bail, and hear plea agreements.
Magistrate judges also issue emergency protective orders, search warrants, and arrest warrants.
Family courts in West Virginia have limited jurisdiction. Cases coming before judges in family court include divorce, separate maintenance, annulment, paternity cases, parental responsibility issues, grandparent visitation, and family support cases. They do not hear cases involving child abuse or neglect. Appeals are sent to the circuit court.
Cases involving wills, estates are the most common cases heard in probate court.
Trial courts include all the lower courts but typically refer to circuit courts. Criminal felony cases are heard in circuit courts as well as civil cases. Circuit courts are the state’s sole general jurisdiction courts.
They are also the court of record for all civil cases where damages are more than $300.
The appellate court is formally called the Supreme Court of Appeals. It is the highest level of court in West Virginia. West Virginia is unique in that it has one appellate court. It joins nine other jurisdictions in the United States that have a sole appellate court.
The Supreme Court is made up of five justices who listen to appeals from decisions made in the lower courts. This includes appeals from the circuit courts, the magistrate courts, and administrative agencies.
This court also hears workers’ compensation cases. The administrative agency handling workers’ compensation sends cases directly to the appellate court. The appellate court will also hear family court matters as long as both parties agree to bypass the circuit court appeal.
Two districts make up the federal court system in West Virginia.
Northern District of West Virginia
Southern District of West Virginia
Those who appeal a decision of a federal district court will go to the United States Court of Appeals – Fourth Circuit located in Richmond Virginia. Decisions from the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court are then sent to the United States Supreme Court.
Are court records public information?
Court records in West Virginia are public information as long as they don’t fall in the listed exemption. You don’t have to be a party to a case to obtain most court records.
Where can I get copies of court records?
Most court records in West Virginia must be obtained through the specific court that heard the case. However, information about obtaining records can be found online through the Administrator of the Court’s website.
However, there is no online database for court records so those seeking records will need to make a written request to the specific court.
Steps for obtaining court records:
- Find the court handling the case and call the court clerk.
- Ask for information on the clerk’s requirements to file for a public documents request.
- They may send you a form to fill out. Fill out any forms, being as specific as you can with as much detailed information available.
- Send back by the court clerk’s desired method. They should respond to you within five days on whether the records you seek are available and the cost of obtaining them.
The Criminal Identification Bureau (CIB), which is under the jurisdiction of the West Virginia State Police, provides criminal background checks with the superintendent’s approval.
A requester must have written authorization from the target of their search to obtain this information. Requesters can do a criminal background check on themselves. All requests are made online and the West Virginia State Police do not accept in-person appointments.
Juvenile records, including arrests, court documents, and sentencing, are not available to the public.
Criminal History Search
A criminal history involves any interaction a person has with law enforcement, the courts, or the correctional system. It can include arrests and charges, even if there was no conviction or if they are pending.
It also includes photos, fingerprints, and other information. There are two ways to search for criminal history. One is a name-based online search and one is a verified criminal history with fingerprints.
Searching by name
Anyone can look up criminal histories online using a name on many third-party sites. Some initial searches are free but others have a fee. To search by name, you must have the person’s legal name and birthdate to get an accurate search. Results are instant. The disadvantage of this type of search is it can be inaccurate as several people can have the same name or birthdate.
Searching by fingerprints
This is the complete background check done through CIB but West Virginia uses a private third-party called Identogo to do digital fingerprints and process requests. A full background check requires fingerprints be done along with written authorization if the criminal background check is on someone other than yourself.
How long does it take to get the results of a criminal history check back?
The standard time to get results of a complete criminal history is two to five days but, in some cases, it could take weeks. Officials advise allowing plenty of time to get results back, especially considering low staffing issues caused by pandemic protocols.
How long does arrest information stay on record?
Criminal history often remains on a person’s record for life.
However, arrest information released to the public can only stay on a person’s record up to seven years after a sentence is served or seven years from the incident date if there isn’t a conviction.
Can a person challenge their criminal history record information?
People can challenge information on their criminal history. There are two types of methods of challenging information. One is to challenge inaccurate information, which results in a document correction.
The other is to seal information that is accurate but that a person wants to hide from public view. Typically, it is used when the incident happened a long time ago, and allowing it to be disseminated to the public hurts job or housing prospects.
Expungement vs. Sealing
Some states list expungement and sealing as the same thing, but West Virginia defines the two separately. Expungement is removing an item from a criminal history.
The process of expungement can begin after a person requests a copy of their criminal history. After inaccurate information is identified, the person seeking expungement goes to the court clerk in the county where the incident happened and files a petition for expungement.
The petitioner gathers all relevant information to show the information is factually incorrect which could include court, medical and travel documents, photos, and other items. A circuit court judge will rule in the case and the information is sent to the West Virginia State Police.
The state police send a certified letter back to the clerk’s office notifying them the record has been removed. The petitioner can pick up a copy of the certified letter at the clerk’s office.
Sealing a conviction or incident follows the same procedure except it is hidden from public view rather than being removed from criminal records. There are rules to determine eligibility for sealing criminal information.
Warrant Records Search
It is possible to search for warrant records in West Virginia but you may need to go to several sources to get what you need. While there are online search engines for warrants, the most accurate information will be through government agencies that keep the information.
Local Law Enforcement
Many counties use the sheriff’s department to serve warrants so those are going to be the best place to start your search. Most sheriff departments have a warrant division that deals only with serving warrants.
However, you may need to go through a public information officer to request access and copies of warrants. To find the local sheriff’s office, go to the county page where the arrest happened and find the sheriff’s department link on the county page. County information can be found here.
The Difference in Warrants and Arrests
A warrant is a document calling for the arrest of a person on charges. However, the charges and arrest are not yet listed in public records. It will contain the name, age, and address of the person along with the charges facing them. A judge issues this based on probable cause.
Arrest records are those generated after the person has been detained and booked at a local law enforcement facility. The arrest will list personal physical information about the arrested person along with their charges.
Searching Arrest Records
West Virginia keeps statistics of crimes and arrests. According to 2018 FBI statistics, which are the latest available, there were around 29.200 arrests in West Virginia. Juvenile arrests totaled 496. Most arrests were related to drug abuse violations.
What’s the difference between an arrest record and a criminal record?
An arrest record pertains to only times where a person is arrested and charged and can be held at a local police station. A criminal record compiles all information the justice system has on a person, including convictions, court rulings, probations, incarcerations, and arrests.
What An Arrest Record Includes
All arrest records include basic information such as:
- Identifying tattoos or marks
Are all arrest records public?
All arrest records are available to the public with the specific exemptions allocated in the law that include juvenile records and records that are sealed.
- Juvenile records
- Sealed records
- Records still under investigation
- Any record falling under the statutory exemptions.
Searching Arrest Records in West Virginia?
Anyone who wants to see arrest records and outstanding warrants in West Virginia must go through the Identogo. The system offers only fingerprinting-based searches.
West Virginia Inmate Records
Inmate records are sometimes wanted by other courts, attorneys, employers, and crime victims. They are used to determine parole eligibility or a change in sentencing.
What Does an Inmate Record Include?
Inmate records generally include:
- Inmate Number
- The release date or anticipated release date
Where can I find West Virginia Inmate Records?
The West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority (RIA) website has inmate information. Those seeking formation will need the legal name of the offender and the state identification number to complete a search.
Searches on the website are free.
Sex Offender Information
The Sex Offender Registration Act allows for the release of information of those required to register under the law. The sex offender list is kept by the West Virginia State Police and the CIB.
West Virginia’s sex offender registry is managed by OffenderWatch, so that is the place to start a search.
OffenderWatch has a phone app that notifies people of changes in an offender’s status or when a new offender is entered into the system.
Vital records include important documents needed to prove identity, marriage, and death. These records include birth and death certifications, as well as marriage and divorce documents, and adoption certificates.
They are some of the most requested public documents as people need them for school, obtaining a driver’s license, passports, and estate settlement. West Virginia offers certified copies of these documents through the West Virginia Vital Registration Office.
The registration office is under the jurisdiction of the West Virginia Department of Health. Those needing vital records can fill out an application and sent it with a check or money order through the mail to:
You can also order birth certificates online through Identogo. The form is located here.
Getting adoption information in West Virginia is challenging as that information is highly protected under privacy laws and adoption, so it is sealed. Those seeking to unseal adoption records and see an original birth certificate will need to petition a circuit court judge to issue an order.
Even though adoption records are sealed, West Virginia allows information that doesn’t have personal identifiers to be publicly available to certain people including adopted persons who are now adults, a legal relative of an adoptee who has died, and adoptee’s guardians.
Requests and information can be obtained by a written letter to:
West Virginia Mutual Consent Registry
Office of Social Services
350 Capitol Street Room 691
Charleston, WV 25301
Most business records in West Virginia can be obtained through the Secretary of State’s office. The Secretary of State manages the registration of all businesses within the state. Registration information includes whether the business complies with the state, the addresses, the date it was incorporated, and the primary contact for the business.
Those wanting business information can also search for business licenses at the site. The Secretary of State’s office also provides certificates of existence for businesses needing proof of having a business for legal and tax purposes.
Several places have West Virginia historical records. The West Virginia and Regional History Center has county records, historical surveys, county court records, and records from federal courts ranging from 1810 until 1930.
The Library of Virginia also stores microfilm of limited county records from West Virginia including wills, marriage bonds, court papers, and deeds. It also has “free Negro” and slave records for African Americans.
Each county may have some historical records. Local records are typically kept in a library or the county courthouse. The clerk of court can direct where to go to find such records.
Those seeking historical records should also seek out non-governmental entities to find information. Some newspapers are more than 100 years old and keep all their editions. Newspapers are the legal organs of the county so much can be found in the paper’s legal section where certain things are required by law to be published.
Local genealogical societies will also have a wealth of information as will historic building managers and local museums. Civic groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) also have a good bit of historical and genealogical information.
Places often overlooked in record searches are churches. Historic churches will have pictures, articles and documents relating to the church’s establishment and early settlement of an area. They sometimes also have decades of records regarding marriages, births and deaths.
Property and Tax Records
Each of the 55 West Virginia counties has a county assessor who is responsible for all property and tax records. The records can be sometimes divided between the assessor’s office and the tax commissioner’s office.
The assessor’s office also contains survey maps and computer data regarding previous landowners and past taxes paid. The tax commissioner’s office has more detailed information on accessed property values, taxes paid or due, and current property owner information.
Most counties keep their property deeds within the court clerk’s office.
Deeds can be searched through either the grantor (seller) or grantee (purchaser). The amount of tax issued on the land is usually on the deed record. However, deeds can be difficult to find because many are not yet uploaded to computers.
Deed books in the county clerk’s office are by year, so those seeking information may need to know the year of the transaction to find the exact deed. Some may need to trace deeds back beginning with a current owner and tracing the property back through deeds from previous owners.
Driving records can be obtained through any Driver and Motor Vehicles (DMV) Office in West Virginia. There is an online portal to order a state driving record but you can only order your record. You can order it by fax or email using the availability request form. You can also request it in person at the local DMV office.
Driving citations are kept on a persons’ record for five years in West Virginia. Each infraction results in points listed on a driver’s record. Those are removed after two years.
Government Meeting Documents
All minutes and meeting notes pertaining to government work sessions and meetings are public. Minutes from executive sessions typically are not public, but officials must make the public aware of the general topic discussion and whether the action was taken in closed sessions.
Other documents, such as government budgets, contracts, and employee information such as salaries and some disciplinary actions are also public as long as they don’t fall under state exemptions.
Local cities and counties also have documents like business and liquor licenses, which are also open to public access. Food scores are available to the public through the county Department of Public Health.
Freedom of information requests should be sent in writing to the specific government entity and agency where the information is stored and managed.
How do I fix public record errors in West Virginia?
Actual errors in public records are different from information a petitioner wants unlisted because these are items that are factually wrong. In these cases, you will need to gather evidence showing the error. The first places to check for correction are the agency involved in the error or the court clerk along with any law enforcement agency that may be involved.
However, most have to take their case to court to get a judge to issue an order for a government agency to correct the mistake.