Public records and free information are the bedrock of democracy. They allow us to keep an eye on government, make sure our judicial system functions properly, and learn more about the actions taken by both elected and non elected officials.
In this guide, we’ll show you what public records are, how to get access to most of the information for free or for a low cost, and where to turn for most of the information you’ll need. If you have the time and the patience, you can generally get access to what you need.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Are Public Records?
- 2 Federal Public Records
- 3 State, City and County Records
What Are Public Records?
We can divide Public Records into two major subcategories:
- Information about people – this includes pretty much anything that might be publicly available about a specific person. For example – their property taxes, licensing information, and whether they’ve gone to jail.
- Information about government actions and policies: This is something that involves a policy, action, or something similar involving an agency of the government. For example, emails between department employees, records kept by an agency, and similar.
When most people look for public records, they are talking about the first type of record – information about a specific person.
Federal Public Records
It’s important to note that different types of records will be kept at the Federal Level, and others at the state, local, and county level. In this section we’ll discuss records that are mostly Federal, as well as the Freedom of Information Act.
The Freedom of Information Act
Before we go any further, let’s take a brief moment to discuss the Freedom of Information Act, which applies primarily to the Federal Government (each state will have a similar law covering its agencies).
The Freedom of Information act (commonly abbreviated FOIA), requires transparency from all US government agencies. Anyone can submit a request from a government agency, and that agency is required by law (with obvious exceptions, of course), to provide the information in a timely fashion.
The FOIA process can be cumbersome sometimes, so we suggest reading more of these resources to fully understand the FOIA process:
If you’re confused about the FOIA process or need help submitting one to the right person at the right agency, the website MuckRock charges a few bucks to help you streamline the entire process.
All Federal court records are available online at PACER.gov. This includes all Federal civil suits, criminal charges, as well as bankruptcies.
PACER is not free, in fact they charge 10 cents per page viewed. Yes, they are using a model stuck in 20th century. In other words, if you download a 100 page lawsuit about something, you will be charged $10.
The website is a bit difficult to use, but PACER offers a free guide when you sign up.
All Bankruptcies in the United States are heard in Federal Court, and as such are available on PACER as well.
Anybody who spent time after 1982 (even just for an arrest without conviction) in a federal facility, can be looked up at the BOJ inmate locator page.
State, City and County Records
The vast majority of public records about people are at the local level: city, county, and state.
You can search public records from our home page.
Arrests are usually maintained by the county sheriff, or the local police agency that booked them. Exceptions to this occur when the arrest is made by the state police.
Births, Deaths, Divorces, and Marriages
This information is usually maintained by the county clerk where the event happened. For older information you may need to contact the state department of health or vital statistics to get access.
Property – Mortgages, Ownership, Deeds, Taxes
Ownership and deed information is usually maintained by the county assessor, and in many counties is searchable online.
Property taxes are usually maintained by the assessor, but we’ve also seen many cities that maintain their own property tax rolls as we well.
Liens are generally maintained at the state level, and are usually searchable at the Secretary of State’s office for the given state.
Corporation and LLC Ownership
In some states, this information is private. In other states it is available at the Secretary of State’s office.