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The Beginner's Guide to Public Records: What Can You Find?

If you're like most people, you might not have even been aware your entire life that public records exist. Of course, with the help they can be to legal settlements and litigation, genealogy and historical research, public policy precedents and more, it makes a lot of sense to keep certain documents on record for easy viewing by the public. In fact, since the first settlements resembling modern day societies sprouted up, public record keeping has been commonplace as a means of resolving or preempting disputes. Even so, public records remain an underused resource for the average citizen. In this article, you will learn the various types of documents and information that can be unearthed through public records requests. While the methods for retrieving public public records vary between jurisdictions and based upon the specific information you're seeking, general information on retrieving each type of document or record will be given when readily available.

Ownership Records

One of the earliest forms of public record keeping we know of pertained to property records. Once someone had purchased a plot of land, they wanted who it belonged to on record. Not much has changed, and property records pertaining to public lots, buildings, or establishments are readily available. In addition, if a building or area was commissioned by the city itself, or by any public representative, records of the communications setting up the build as well as the contract terms themselves will, in most cases, be matters of public record. While private house sales and ownership are not subject to public records law, any real estate appraisals done on a property are public record (to presumably ensure honesty in sales negotiations and expectations). County or city clerks offices often house these records.

Births, Marriages, and Deaths

It would appear that, from beginning to end, all of the biggest events in your life are also part of public record. New births are always reported by the hospitals or professionals who deliver the child, while coroners offices assign death certificates. These records assist with census data and other commonly used statistics. Additionally, birth and death records help states avoid having unidentified or non-existent residents in their records or on their social programs. Marriage licenses are also kept as a matter of public record. These three types of documents can be extremely helpful when researching your family tree and history, as tracking down past family members and their spouses would be a real pain without it. States will often have a "vital statistics office" or similar operation to house birth and death records (marriage records can be separate). In addition to physical locations, many states are putting or have put these databases online for ease of access - most public document systems are going this way, so keep that in mind when looking at other types of records.

Court Dockets and Criminal Records

While certain high profile trials may have access restrictions during their actual proceedings, the happenings of a courthouse are a matter of public record. Dockets, or summaries of a court case and its courtroom proceedings, are available for perusal after the case is closed. In the same way, records about defendants in such cases are available. Criminal records are also available through courthouse and police records databases, and list out any prior convictions or warrants for an individual. Some convictions, if overturned or if certain circumstances or time limits are met, can be expunged from a record, or at least sealed from public records and basic background checks. While many online services claim to offer criminal background/record checks, it's always recommended that you go straight to your local legal system and find out what the record keeping and retrieval policy in your jurisdiction is.

Meeting Minutes From Public Forums

Any official meeting of elected officials or public representative bodies is going to be covered by public record law as well. This doesn't just include mayoral and governor's offices, but can extend to other state representatives, town hall meetings, school district or school board meetings, and more. Accountability is one of the cornerstones of why we have public records, and these types of records certainly further those ends. To obtain these records, you should contact the specific office of the official or group you are interested in. In many cases, the forms that these offices use are now available online, so you can submit a web form or fill out a word/PDF document and email it to someone rather than having to print, fill out, and take or mail a form in.

Protective Information

Some of the information available through public records requests is directly meant to be available for the safety of the public. One such example is the sex offender registry, which is the reason that you can now easily see online how close you live to any registered sex offenders. Other types of protective information might include things like consumer safety reports and recalls surrounding certain products or materials.

General Tips

When approaching any office about their public records, be as polite as possible; too often, reporters and public records requesters approach with a "Gotcha!" attitude, and immediately put public offices on the defensive. If you do run into any trouble, the law to cite is the Freedom of Information Act, which outlines documents that public offices need to hand over when presented with a formal request. Additionally, your own state will likely have its own specific freedom of information type act with specifications.

Be prepared to pay as well. Public records are meant to be viewable for free, but reproduction usually comes with a cost. typically, this is not very much (5 to 10 cents per copied/printed sheet). In some cases, however, exorbitant fees have been used to discourage public records requests. If you do meet excessive resistance, it may be time to approach a legal adviser or someone with some more know-how and clout in the field. That said, this probably will never even be an issue for most people. Good luck with your records search!

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