Curious about the laws surrounding Wisconsin public records? Then you’ve found the perfect place! We are going to walk you through everything you need to know about accessing and searching for records in this state.
What Federal Laws Apply to Public Records in the United States of America?
The Freedom of Information Act (otherwise referred to as FOIA) was passed in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson. The law went into effect a year later in 1967 and applies to all public records held inside the United States of America. It stipulates the right people have to view and make copies for records held, maintained, updated, and protected by public agencies.
The FOIA covers nine exemptions that restrict access to specific sections of files and documents. The nine exemptions are as follows:
- Classified national defense and foreign relations information
- Internal agencies rules and/or practices
- Trade secrets and other linked business information
- Data/information prohibited from disclosure by another federal law
- Information surrounding personal privacy (under the federal Privacy Act) or any information that directly identifies an individual, impacting their safety
- Inter-agency communications that are held under attorney-client and other legal privileges
- Geological data on wells
- Information about a financial institution’s supervision
- Information made for/by law enforcement when the disclosure of the record would do one of the following:
- Interfere with enforcement processes and procedures
- Invade somebody’s personal privacy
- Disallow somebody’s right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication
- Endanger the life or physical safety of an individual
- Disclose the identity of an anonymous witness or source
- Leak prosecution, investigation, or law enforcement techniques
Following the Freedom of Information Act 1966, every state has created its own version for its counties and cities to abide by.
How Does Wisconsin Define Public Records?
In 1982, the Wisconsin Open Records Law was enacted. In fact, this is a series of laws designed to ensure that the general public has the right to access public records of all government entities at all levels.
Chapter 19 of the Wisconsin State Legislature section 32 (2) defines public records as any document written, printed, spoken, digitized, drawn, or generated held, maintained, preserved, or created by a public agency regardless of physical form or characteristics. This includes maps, charts, handwritten notes, printed pages, typed documents, photographs, recordings, optical discs, tapes, and other mediums.
According to this law, there is no time limit placed on responses. However, Chapter 19 section 19.34 (2) stipulates that agencies who operate under standard business hours must make record access available to the public (citizen or not) during this period. If a government entity does not operate under standard business hours, they must do one of the following under Chapter 19 section 19.34 (2b):
- Allow access to records at least 48 hours after the written or oral request to copy or view a record
- Create at least a 2-hour time frame each week for people to access records. If the agency decides to do this, a 24-hour advance warning of inspection or copying intent should be issued by you, the requestor.
You can request records in Wisconsin whether you are a state citizen or otherwise. Just bear in mind that other federal and state laws might come into play if you are not a state citizen.
Examples of Wisconsin Public Records
The state of Wisconsin has been creating public records since 1790 and includes data from its 72 counties and 1,851 municipalities. Over the past 30 years or so, these records have been transformed into digital media to make access even easier.
The Wisconsin Open Records Law defines many records as public, including but not limited to the following:
- Criminal records — This includes inmate, warrant, sex offender, and arrest records.
- Court records
- Driving records
- Historical records
- Property and tax records
- Vital records
Wisconsin Public Records Exemptions
While the state of Wisconsin does its best to include most records under the “public” umbrella, the Legislature does recognize that there are circumstances when access to such records needs to be balanced with other federal/lawful/state interests.
Unlike other states, the exemptions are incredibly general. The law trusts public records custodians to make the right call on a case-by-case basis, so much so that there are only 13 exemptions!
Below, you can find the 13 exemptions in detail, along with the relevant statute section for your reference:
- Records that contain personally identifiable information collected/maintained in relation to a complaint, investigation, or other reason that could lead to enforcement action, court proceedings, or similar — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.35 (1)(am)(1)
- Records containing personally identifiable information that would cause the following if disclosed — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.35 (1)(am)(2):
- Endanger life or safety of a person
- Identify an anonymous witness or informant
- Compromise the rehabilitation of a person in the DOC (Department of Corrections) or inside a jail/facility
- Endanger the security of the staff of state prisons — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 302 § 302.01 —, mental health institutions — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 51 § 51.01 (12) —, facilities designed for the care of sexually violent individuals — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 980 § 980.065 —, centers for the developmentally disabled — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 51.01 (3) —, juvenile correctional facilities — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 938 § 938.02 (10p) —, or residential centers for children and youth — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 938 § 938.02 (15g)
- Law enforcement records — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.36 (2) — This applies only when other laws override the Wisconsin Open Records Law and/or when public disclosure would limit fair trial rights.
- Information computer data and programs — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.36 (4) — A computer program, as defined under § 16.971 (4) (c), cannot be accessed or copied by the public. However, the input material for said program or the product of the program can be examined and copied under the Wisconsin Open Records Law.
- Information regarding trade secrets — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.36 (5) — You can find the definition of trade secrets in § 134.90 (1) (c).
- Identities of applicants applying for public career positions — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.36 (7) — This applies to those who are submitted for final consideration for any of the following positions:
- Local public offices
- President, vice president, or senior vice president of the University of Wisconsin System
- State position not included in the University of Wisconsin System
- Identities of law enforcement informants — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.36 (8) — An informant is defined by Wisconsin law as an individual who asks for confidentiality when providing information to or about a public/law enforcement agency. Law enforcement agency is defined under § 165.83 (1) (b).
- Plans or specifications for state buildings — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.36 (9) — This includes state-owned and state-leased buildings, facilities, or structures.
- Employee personnel records — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.36 (10) — Unless otherwise stated, employee records containing the following information will not be subject to disclosure:
- Information made, provided, or maintained by an employer containing the home address, email address, phone number, or security number of an employee
- Information about current investigations of alleged criminal offense or misconduct in relation to an employee
- Information about a person’s employment examination
- Information regarding employee statistics used for staff management planning, recommendations, performance evaluations, and similar.
- Financially identifying information — Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.36 (13) — This includes an individual’s account number, credit card number, debit card number, checking account numbers, and other such information unless expressly required by law.
This list is exhaustive. However, laws and legislations change all the time, so be sure to check before you use our compiled exemption list above.
Where Can You Get Wisconsin Public Records?
Under the Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19, the legal custodian of all public records is the Division Administrator held in this agency. However, the authority surrounding these records has been handed to the DHA’s Supervisor to ensure you have better access to the records.
You can request access to Wisconsin public records by visiting or mailing to this address:
Division of Hearings and Appeals
Carla Whitley, Admin. Program Mgmt. Supervisor
4822 Madison Yards Way, 5th Floor North
Madison, WI 53705-7875
The time it takes to receive the records depends on the extent and nature of the request, as well as the staff availability and other necessary resources.
The Wisconsin Open Records Law does not state a timeframe in which agencies must respond to your request. However, they are advised to do so “as soon as practicable and without delay”.
Are There Any Fees Associated with Making a Public Record Request in Wisconsin?
Chapter 19 section 19.35 (3) states that public agencies can charge a fee for a copy of the record. However, this fee cannot be more than the actual and necessary cost of reproduction or transcription.
If a record does not need copying, the fee cannot be more than the direct and necessary mailing and/or locating cost of the photograph of the record. Although, it’s worth noting that you cannot be charged for the location of records unless the actual cost exceeds $50.
If you are accessing a record for public interest reasons, the agency may waive or reduce the fee for copying, transcribing, and mailing.
Depending on the public agency you contact, they might request the payment upfront when the total amount is beyond $5, but this isn’t always the case.
Wisconsin Court Records
To understand how court records in Wisconsin work, it’s worth knowing about the court structure and function. So, take a look at each type of court in Wisconsin below.
There are two federal district courts, a state supreme court, a state court of appeals, and trial courts in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s federal district courts are as follows:
- The Eastern District of Wisconsin — There are two court divisions under the Eastern District of Wisconsin known as Green Bay Division and Milwaukee Division. This area covers the following counties:
- Green Bay Division — Florence, Brown, Calumet, Door, Forest, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Langlade, Oconto, Marinette, Menominee, Shawano, Outagamie, Waushara, Winnebago, and Waupaca
- Milwaukee Division — Dodge, Green Lake, Walworth, Sheboygan, Ozaukee, Racine, Fond du Lac, Kenosha, Marquette, Washington, Milwaukee, and Waukesha
- The Western District of Wisconsin — The Western District covers the following counties:
- Eau Claire
- La Crosse
- St. Croix
There are two federal bankruptcy courts in Wisconsin that deal with all state bankruptcy cases. They are named the Eastern District of Wisconsin Bankruptcy Court and the Western District of Wisconsin Bankruptcy Court.
State Supreme Court
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is the state’s last resort court with 7 operating judgeships. It has authority over the rest of Wisconsin’s court system, but it also hears original cases. Its most common cases are those from the Court of Appeals.
Court of Appeals
This is the intermediate appellate court in the state. It has mandatory jurisdiction. In other words, the Court of Appeals cannot choose which appeals to hear. Generally, it will correct issues from Circuit Court cases. It holds the final decision on all its cases, except those dealt with by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
These are trial courts, meaning they deal with civil and criminal cases. They are divided into branches and have 249 circuit judges between them, with one Circuit Court in almost over county. The judges are elected on a county-by-county basis, but there are 9 judicial administrative districts in the state.
The judicial administrative districts are as follows:
- District One — Milwaukee
- District Two — Kenosha, Walworth, and Racine
- District Three — Jefferson, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, and Dodge
- District Four — Fond du Lac, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Waushara, Calumet, Green Lake, Marquette, and Winnebago
- District Five — Dane, Lafayette, Rock, Sauk, Columbia, and Green
- District Six — Adams, Buffalo, Grant, Clark, Jackson, Iowa, Crawford, La Crosse, Monroe, Pierce, Richland, Juneau, Pepin, Trempealeau, and Vernon
- District Seven — Brown, Kewaunee, Marinette, Outagamie, Waupaca, Door, and Oconto
- District Eight — Langlade, Florence, Forest, Marathon, Lincoln, Oneida, Menominee, Price, Portage, Taylor, Vilas, Wood, and Shawano
- District Nine — Ashland, Bayfield, Burnett, Chippewa, Douglas, Barron, Dunn, Eau Claire, Iron, Polk, St. Croix, Sawyer, Washburn, and Rusk
You can find all the contact information for circuit courts and their judges on the Wisconsin Court System website.
Finally, some communities have created a municipal court that handles non-criminal traffic and ordinance cases.
Are Court Records Public Information in Wisconsin?
The state of Wisconsin ensures a very transparent court system, and the restrictions placed on public records stated in Chapter 19 § 19.36 of the Wisconsin State Legislature are extremely limited. With this in mind, it probably comes as no surprise that many court records are public information.
Typically, the following data is found on court records:
- Court minutes
- Case files
- Orders of the court
- Judgment documents
- Jury files and records
- Witness documentation
Where Can You Find Court Records in Wisconsin?
Usually, court records are complicated to access. You’ll typically find that you must identify the correct courthouse before being able to find the record. However, Wisconsin has made it easier thanks to its online database.
The state’s database gives you instant access to court records from circuit courts, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. You just need the name, birthdate, or business name of those involved on the record to find it. Of course, the more information you can give, the more accurate your results will be.
If for some reason, you can’t find the documents you’re searching for, you will need to gain access the traditional way — by contacting the court clerk in the courthouse where the case was processed. The clerk can give you the public documents following the call or after you’ve filled out a formal request form.
Wisconsin Criminal Records
The Wisconsin Department of Justice Crime Information Bureau, otherwise known as the CIB, is responsible for all criminal records held, made, and maintained by the state. Regardless of the county or municipality, all the state’s criminal records are compiled in a singular database, with criminal background checks available to the general public.
A criminal record details an individual’s interaction with various law enforcement agencies. The information found inside is taken from a range of sources including documents of inmates held in one of the state’s four prisons.
You will find the following specific information on a criminal record or background check:
- A mug shot
- Fingerprints (full set)
- Personal information including the individual’s name, nationality, height, and birthdate
- Type of offense (i.e., misdemeanor or felony)
- A description of the crime
- Distinguishing features such as tattoos, piercings, scars, and other attributes
How to Search for Criminal History Records in Wisconsin
Criminal records can be found through the Wisconsin Department of Justice Crime Information Bureau as we mentioned earlier. You can search using fingerprints or a name. The former is more accurate, but the fees associated with the request are a lot higher, so a name-based search is a way to go if you are trying to save money and time.
To perform a criminal history search, simply go to the link above and set up an account. After that, you can input a name or request a fingerprint kit to access the information.
If you do decide to conduct a name-based search, it’s a good idea to have the following information about the person to hand as well:
- Any known aliases
- Social security number
Without this information, the database might pull non-relevant, inaccurate data.
Typically, you can see the results of a name-based search immediately. But, with incredibly common names, manual intervention might be needed, increasing the wait time to 24 hours.
You can send your request, along with the $12 fee, to the Division of Law Enforcement Services Record Check Unit via the mail if you don’t want to use the online database. To do this, follow these steps:
- Fill out the request form DJ-LE-250.
- Put it in a self-addressed stamped return envelope.
- Mail it to the following address:
WI Division of Law Enforcement Services
Crime Information Bureau, Record Check Unit
PO Box 2688
Madison WI 53701-2688
Name-Based SearchesFingerprint-Based Searches
|Cost for Employees||$7.00||$31.50|
|Cost for Volunteers||$7.00||$30.00|
|Additional Notes||$5.00 surcharge if you send the form by fax or mail||N/A|
How Long Does a Criminal History Record Check Take in Wisconsin?
If you are conducting a name-based criminal history record check, you will receive the results of your search within minutes when using the online service. As mentioned, if manual intervention is needed, an additional 24 hours is added to the wait time.
If you are conducting a fingerprint-based criminal history record check, you should expect to wait around 10 days for the results. This is due to the processing time required for hardcopy requests.
How Long Does Wisconsin Arrest Information Stay on Your Record?
Any arrest information and misdemeanor convictions stay on CCAP (i.e., the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program, the online database) for 20 years from the date of the record. However, arrests and conviction documents are held and maintained by the Wisconsin Department of Justice Crime Information Bureau for life.
Although, the state of Wisconsin allows certain criminal cases to be expunged (i.e., sealed or removed entirely) in specific circumstances. For those who were arrested but never convicted, you could have all or some of your arrest records eradicated from the Wisconsin Criminal History Repository. The same can be said for minor offenses committed when you were under 25 years old.
If the court does agree to expunge your records, any employers conducting background checks cannot consider the offense, regardless of whether it is related to the job you’re applying for.
Removing Arrest Information
If your charges were dropped, dismissed, or you were released without charge, you should refer to § 165.84 (1) of the Wisconsin Statute. Alternatively, you can go to the Wisconsin Department of Justice website for more information.
Wisconsin Expungement Circumstances
In the state of Wisconsin, a court can expunge your conviction record if all of the following apply, according to § 973.015 of the Wisconsin Statutes:
- You were under 25 years of age when the crime was committed.
- The crime had a maximum of 6 years or less of imprisonment.
- You completed the terms of your sentence successfully.
Can You Challenge Your Criminal History Record Information in Wisconsin?
You can challenge your criminal history record if you believe the information pulled for you actually relates to a different person. To do this, you will have to complete a valid applicant fingerprint card (FD-258) and submit it to the Crime Information Bureau for review.
Wisconsin Warrant Records
Warrant records are written by a grand jury or judge. They grant law enforcement agents permission to confiscate evidence, arrest a singular identifiable person, or search somebody’s property (e.g., their home, car, business place, or all three).
Generally speaking, warrants are issued only when there is enough proof to connect a crime with a specific individual.
They are searchable by the public and all law enforcement/court staff.
How to Search for Warrant Records in Wisconsin
If you are facing a warrant in Wisconsin, it’s likely known as a “bench warrant”. These are issued by a judge after you fail to appear in court or refuse to obey a court order. This could be due to a drug offense, DUI, or a delinquent on child support payments.
Thankfully, it is incredibly easy to search for arrest or bench warrants in Wisconsin. Simply access the Wisconsin Consolidated Court Automation Program, otherwise known as the CCAP. Here, you will be able to find all outstanding bench warrants and court records.
There are, however, some things that you should keep in mind before you solely rely on the information you find on the Consolidated Court Automation Program. The facts are as follows:
- The database does not always include the latest information. While it is updated every hour, technical problems can arise which delay postings of warrants and other court-related records.
- If you are looking for federal warrants, the Consolidated Court Automation Program will not help you. Only Wisconsin state warrants are amalgamated here.
- Some records are not public through this system. These include warrants relating to child protection issues and juvenile delinquency.
What Is the Difference Between an Arrest Record and an Arrest Warrant?
An arrest record is a document created after apprehension or an arrest has occurred. It is compiled by the law enforcement officer who dealt with the arrest so they can provide accurate details of the event.
An arrest warrant, on the other hand, is given to law enforcement agencies within the state by a judge or jury. It grants officers permission to arrest or search an individual (not a group) for an alleged crime.
Wisconsin Arrest Records
Take a look at the brief overview of Wisconsin crimes and arrests below compiled based on FBI statistics:
- The crime rate per 1,000 residents in Wisconsin is 17.65.
- You have a 1 in 341 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime in the State of Wisconsin.
- The rape rate per 1,000 residents in Wisconsin is 0.39, while the United States of America average is 0.43.
- The national median average for crimes per square mile is 28.3. Wisconsin’s median crimes per square mile are far lower at 16.
- In 2019, there were 2,261 rapes reported in the state of Wisconsin. In the same year, 11,643 aggravated assaults were report, as well as 175 murders.
What Shows Up on Wisconsin Arrest Records?
Arrest records show the following details in Wisconsin:
- Sex offender information if applicable
- Probation and/or parole history
- DUI convictions if applicable
- Drug convictions, including marijuana warnings, if applicable
- Outstanding warrants
What Is the Difference Between an Arrest Record and a Criminal Record?
A criminal record is an incredibly detailed, comprehensive report on an individual’s entire criminal background, including convictions, warrants, and everything in between.
Arrest records, on the other hand, describe and define a singular arrest occasion. They are made by the arresting officer immediately after the apprehension occurred.
What Is a Public Arrest Record?
You already know that arrest records are produced by the arresting officer once the event has happened. They are generally used in trials as evidence or to figure out whether a trial should occur in the first place.
In Wisconsin, arrest records are public information and can therefore be viewed by anyone and everyone, as long as they are not exempt under the Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.36.
What Can You See on a Public Arrest Record in Wisconsin?
Public arrest records in Wisconsin show the information below:
- Personal information of the individual such as first name, last name, birthday, fingerprints, weight, height, and race
- Any personal identifiers including birthmarks, piercings, scars, and tattoos
- Address of the detention center or jail
- Name of the arresting officer
- Place of arrest
- Date of the arrest
- Time of the arrest
- Name of the judge/jury who issued the warrant
- Case status
- Details of the suspected crime
Who Can Obtain Copies of Wisconsin Arrest Records?
Employers, organizations, and individuals can acquire copies of Wisconsin arrest records via the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) Crime Information Bureau (CIB). Conducting a standard background check will ensure any non-expunged arrest records appear. Typically, name-based searches are done here for cost and time efficiency. However, fingerprint-based searches will bring up more accurate arrest/criminal records.
Why Can’t You Access an Arrest Record in Wisconsin?
If you are looking for an arrest record dated further back than the 1970s, it is unlikely that you will be able to find it online. Instead, you should head to the local courthouse and request access the old-fashioned way (i.e., by filling out a pen-and-paper form when you arrive).
If you can’t access a more recent arrest record, this is typically due to one of the public exposure exemptions stated in the Wisconsin State Legislature Chapter 19 § 19.36.
How to Search for Arrest Records in Wisconsin
You can ask for arrest records at your local courthouse or by accessing the Wisconsin Department of Justice Crime Information Bureau and running a fingerprint-based or name-based search. As mentioned previously, the latter is the cheapest and easiest way to gain access to such records, but it might not pull up the most accurate or applicable results.
Wisconsin Inmate Records
Wisconsin inmate records contain offenders that are held in the state’s detention centers, penal institutions, state prisons, and other correctional inmate facilities. These records are held and maintained by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. They can include the information listed below:
- Parish where the case was tried
- Location of the inmate
- Offense classification
- Type of offense
- Sentencing information
What Can You See on an Inmate Record in Wisconsin?
The information found on inmate records in the United States of America varies drastically from state to state. Those held and maintained in Wisconsin often contain a range of personal information and specific incarceration situation information.
When you access an inmate record, you will find the following data:
- Jail transfer information, if any
- Name, gender, and date of birth
- Custody status
- Inmate registration number
Where Can You Find Wisconsin Inmate Records?
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (shortened to the WDOC) offers an online database known as the Offender Locator Portal. Using this service, you can access the inmate status of anybody in the system. All you need to input is the inmate’s ID number or last name to search the database.
Once you input the relevant information, the system will return a bunch of search results with the following fields to help narrow your search:
- Birth year
- First name
- County where the criminal case occurred
- County where the person is incarcerated
- Current inmate status
If you know the county where the inmate is detained, you can use the websites offered by the county’s sheriff’s office to quicken your search time.
Sex Offender Information
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WDOC) maintains a database called the Sex Offender Registry. This is available to the public and is designed to protect everyone by providing a way for residents to track and monitor the activity/whereabouts of sex offenders in the community.
Wisconsin Vital Records
The Wisconsin Department of Health Vital Records office holds, protects, and maintains all the marriage records, death records, birth records, partnership records, and divorce records of the state.
To request access to a vital record in Wisconsin, you need to provide the following information to help the search process well:
- The date of the event (it can be approximate)
- The place of the event
- The full name of the person on the record (if married, maiden names must be included)
- The license number (if you are searching for a marriage record)
- The case file number (if you are searching for a divorce record)
- Start and termination dates (if you are searching for a partnership record)
You must also be a family member or listed on the record in order to access them. They are still considered a public record, however, they are only given to specific individuals. You will have to provide proof of identity when trying to receive the record.
You can acquire a vital record by mail, email, or online. The latter is the best and easiest option, simply go to the Wisconsin Department of Health Vital Records website and get started! However, if you would rather use the mail-order system, you need to use the following address:
State Vital Records Office
PO Box 309
Wisconsin Driving Records
The DMV records in Wisconsin are subject to the Wisconsin Statute § 19.31 – 19.39, meaning they are public information. Although, they will always balance the need for individual privacy and the public right to access the information.
You can obtain records held by the DMV in Wisconsin by completing a Vehicle/Driver Record Information Request MV2896 and sending the corresponding fee. Section C of the form needs to indicate under which authority from Section A has given you the right for records to be requested.
Interestingly, the DMV is not responsible for deciding eligibility. Instead, you (the requestor) must decide whether you should legally be asking for the record.
If an MV2896 form is completed fraudulently, then you will be subject to fines under the Federal Driver’s Privacy Protect Act that was passed by Congress in the year of 1994. This law ensures that personal information on instruction permits, registrations, vehicle titles, and driver’s licenses remain private.