Public records are those records which are available for public inspection. These records are often offered for free to the public for review at the location where they are stored. In other cases, they may be available for a small fee. These records are often named according to where they are kept, or where they originated. There are court records, state records, county records, and city records. There are also records available to the public kept by the federal government.
Theoretically, in a democracy, any record that is produced and paid for at taxpayer expense should be a public record. There are cases, however, when these records may not be immediately available. This often happens in the case where the information contained in the record would jeopardize national security, interfere with a court case, or infringe on a person’s right to privacy. At some point, the records may be made available. Those that are may be called declassified public records.
Each individual jurisdiction handles its records somewhat differently. For example, in some states, getting a birth certificate may require dealing with a state office of vital statistics, or similar office. In other cases, it will be necessary to deal with a county office in charge of such statistics. In some cases, even seemingly related records will be kept in two different places. A marriage certificate may be kept at a county office. A divorce decree concerning the same marriage often will be kept at the clerk of court’s office.
Therefore, it is important for an individual seeking a public record to understand exactly what type of record they are looking for. This can save hours of searching or save the inconvenience of going to the wrong location. As each state and county may have a different system, it is best to call ahead, identify the types of records needed, and ask where they would be located.
In some cases, copies of public records may be sent to an individual, though this will often depend on the type of public record. Even free records will likely have copy and postage fees associated with them if being sent to an individual. According to state and federal laws, these fees must be reasonable and accurately reflect the costs associated with producing the records. They can include the expense of materials and the employee’s time who searched for the records.
In some cases a public records search can be done online. These may include public criminal records, property records, and other court records. While the information will not be in the same form as the physical records, the basic information is usually all available. If not, the online search may provide details on how to access the full records.