Do you want to see if your neighborhood is has any past convicts or offenders who are currently on parole living in it? Think you might have forgotten to collect on a refund given to you a couple years back by your insurance company? Reassure yourself and gain a new level of insight into the information available to you as a resident of the great state of New York by learning about public record laws.
You have a statutory right to inspect New York's public records using the state's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). See Sections 84 to 90 of the New York Public Officers Law, which states that there are no limitations on which members of the public can request records.
How to request public information in New York
There is no uniform procedure for you to follow in requesting records from New York agencies because each agency has its own procedures for handling records requests. See N.Y. Pub. Off. Law 87.1(b), 88.1. If in doubt, you should contact the agency whose records you desire to find out what method they use for making a request.
Once a request has been made, the records access manager has five days to refuse or comply with your request. If you want a copy of the records, you may need to pay a fee. Note that the law only applies to existing records. The law does not require a FOIA custodian to create a record in response to your request.
The Vital Records Office provides eligible applicants with copies of birth and death certificates for births and deaths in New York State outside of New York City (1881-present), marriage licenses obtained in New York State outside of New York City (1880-present) and divorce certificates for all of New York State (1963-present).
To find information about birth records, contact the New York State Department of Health. The New York State Department of Health does not however, file and cannot issue copies of New York City birth certificates. To look up births in one of the five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan, Kings, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island), visit the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene web site. Only the person themself or the parent of the person on the birth certificate is eligible to obtain a copy of the birth certificate. Only by order of a New York State Court may a spouse, child, or other persons obtain a copy of a birth certificate.
Contact the New York State Department of Health to obtain a death certificate copy of someone who died in New York. Just like their birth records, the records for deaths in the boroughs of New York City must be found by visiting the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene web site. The spouse, parents, and children or siblings of the deceased are eligible to obtain a death certificate copy. Other persons who have a documented lawful right or claim, documented medical need, or a New York State Court Order are also eligible to obtain a death certificate copy.
Marriage Licenses and Certificates
To obtain a marriage certificate copy for a person who obtained the marriage license in New York outside of New York City, contact the New York State Department of Health. The New York State Department of Health does not file and cannot issue copies of marriage certificates for persons who obtained the marriage license in any of the five boroughs of New York City; visit the New York City Marriage Bureau web page instead. Spouses and other persons who have either a documented judicial purpose (or other proper purpose) or a New York State Court Order are eligible to obtain a marriage certificate copy for an administrative fee.
There are two types of divorce records in the state of New York. The first is the divorce decree, which was the method of documenting marriages before January 1, 1963. These decrees were signed by a judge and filed with the County Clerk of the County where the decrees were issued. For information about obtaining a copy of a divorce decree, contact the appropriate County Clerk. Second, there is the divorce certificate, which has been filed with the New York State Department of Health for divorces granted on or after January 1, 1963. The divorce certificate contains information about the spouses and the date and place the marriage ended. For this information, contact the New York State Department of Health. Either spouses or other persons with a New York State Court Order are eligible to obtain a certificate copy for an administrative fee.
*Note: Access to vital records are requested for an administrative fee, and they can be ordered via the internet, telephone, or mail requests. Internet or telephone requests are processed within five to ten business days, while mail requests are processed within two to four weeks from when they are received.
Information on parolees
You can search for individuals who are on parole by visiting the New York State Division of Parole. They are the entity in the state that is responsible for public information on parolees.
The state of New York has been making election results and data available to the public since 1994. You can discover this information by visiting the New York State Board of Elections. They are also responsible for storing and providing access to campaign finance disclosure reports and expenditure records.
You can search to see if you have any unclaimed property that is currently in possession of your state's local government by visiting the Office of Unclaimed Funds.
What to do if your request is denied
You have several options open to you should the records access manager deny your request. First, try to work with the records access manager. If the agency is relying on an exemption, ask the records access manager to release the nonexempt portions of the record with the exempt portions removed or redacted.
If you are unable to make headway with the records access manager and your records request remains denied, you have thirty days to appeal to the head of the agency. The agency has ten days to comply with your request, or explain their denial in writing. If you receive a denial at this point (including if the agency does not respond), you can always file a lawsuit with the New York state court to enforce compliance with your request. In some cases the court may even award you attorney's fees.