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Anyone that has ever tried to get public records in the state of California knows that it can be a challenging process. Records are maintained across several departments within the state, but all Californians have the right to access public records housed by both a local agency and state government agencies, including those held at the Department of Justice. This includes millions of criminal records, court records, inmate records, and vital records across all 58 counties in the state of California.

The state of California has a fairly specific public records law, with specified response times and exemptions to few records. The California constitution actually has few exemptions in its public records law. While many states exclude some records created by the legislature, California does not. If a records request is denied, however, there is no appeals process in place to gain access to the records. 

To assist people in acquiring the records, we have compiled this guide for the state of California that will enable people to better understand the laws within the state and provide instructions on how to access criminal, court, inmate, and vital records. 

What does the California public records law say?

The public records law in the state of California says it’s the necessary right of every person to “access to records that relate to the conduct of the people” yet exempts information that is deemed solely personal that happens to be included on a public account. 

Under California law, responses must be met within 10 days and applies to both executive and state agencies. Residency within the state is not required, however, there is no appeal option if a request is denied. 

How can a person access public records in California?

For a public records act request, a person must submit a public records request. The request is sent via mail, email, mail, or by phone to the record-holding department. Sometimes, a physical form must be submitted to the public agency. 

Every department is different, so expect some variation to the rules if you’re accessing government records from multiple places. 

In general, a public records request should include: 

  • Your name and contact information, including an email or phone number where you can be reached during office hours
  • The name of the document you want access to with as much detail as possible
  • A specific time period that you’d like to receive the materials by
  • How to deliver the documents, whether by email or mail

COVID-19 has created some unusual circumstances, which has resulted in some public offices limiting hours of operation. As a result, online requests or utilizing electronic formats are best, but it can not stop you from accessing records “concerning the conduct of people’s business.” 

California criminal records

In California, criminal records – also known as rap sheets – are typically used by employers that want to check the backgrounds of potential employees. In order to assist in searching for a person’s criminal records, we have provided the following information and resources below. 

What’s on a criminal record?

A person’s criminal record includes a thorough overview of their interaction with law enforcement and is pulled from several sources. These records consist of any arrests, convictions, and incarcerations throughout the state’s 35 prisons. 

Specifically, a criminal record or background check includes the following information:

  • Personal information (name, birth date, nationality)
  • Mugshot plus fingerprints
  • Comprehensive list of distinguishing physical features (tattoos, scars, moles)
  • Any misdemeanors or felonies, including a description of the crime

Where can a person find California criminal records?

Criminal records in California are administered by the Office of the Attorney General. The OAG provides background checks that can be accessed through law enforcement offices and through the official California State Records Online Database. 

Manual fingerprints are required as part of the government code to initiate a background search as criminal records are not provided without a person’s knowledge, although an individual can give consent to initiate one. 

Criminal inmate records

The state of California has approximately 115,000 inmates within its corrections system. Inmate records provide information on inmates that are currently incarcerated. 

What’s on an inmate record?

The information listed on an inmate can vary, but in California records typically contain a combination of personal information along with specific details about a person’s incarceration situation. The following information can be acquired when public access is provided to inmate records:

  • Name, birth date, gender
  • Mugshot
  • Inmate location
  • Inmate registration number
  • Custody status
  • Jail transfer information

Where can a person find California inmate records?

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation provides information and links that allow you to locate offenders and provide information for victims and advocates.  

Use the site with an inmate’s first and last name or offender ID to do a search. If you cannot locate the inmate through these means, contact the Department’s Identification Unit at 916-445-6713. 

California court records

Court records are able to provide extensive information from court hearings and for those that are seeking access, there are resources listed below. Note that it is often a difficult process to procure court records as they can be held across different courts. 

What’s on a court record?

The information on a court record can vary, but in California, most people are looking for these specific documents within a court record:

  • Court minutes
  • Case files
  • Dockets
  • Orders of the court
  • Judgment documentation
  • Jury records and files
  • Witness documentation

Where can a person find California court records?

In California, court records for background checks are served via the California Judicial Branch, although the state imposes restrictions on employers that request them. These restrictions can are found in the following:

  1. California’s ‘ban the box’ law
  2. The Los Angeles and San Francisco ‘Fair Chance Ordinances’ (FCO
  3. Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)
  4. California Information Privacy Act (CIPA)
  5. Anti-discrimination laws

Court records can also be obtained in the following ways:

  • Go to the courthouse and request to look at physical records
  • Go to the courthouse and request access to electronic court records
  • Access electronic records via the internet

If you plan to go to the courthouse to request records, having an understanding of how the state court system works is helpful. In California, the supreme court is the highest authority. The California Supreme Court oversees decisions made by the court of appeal, which oversees decisions made by superior courts. Most court cases are heard by a superior court or trial court.

California vital records

California, like most states, has an office that maintains its vital records. Vital records are maintained for milestone moments and include birth records, marriage records, and death certificates. 

What information is needed to request a vital record?

To request a vital record, you must provide some information upfront to facilitate the search. You’ll need to provide the following: 

  • Full names before the first marriage of both spouses
  • Date of marriage
  • California county where the marriage license was issued
  • Your name
  • Your signature
  • Address where the certificate is to be mailed
  • Your daytime phone number

Where can a person find California vital records?

The California Department of Public Health – Vital Records (CDPH-VR) keeps birth, death, deaths, marriage, and divorce records on file for the state of California. The department also issues certified copies of California vital records as well as registers and amends vital records as authorized by law. 

Because California receives a large volume of requests on the state level, it is quicker to request vital records directly from the county office, with many accepting requests by phone, fax, online, and with credit card payment. 

Frequently asked questions about California records

In your quest to access public records in California, you may have additional questions. To further assist California citizens in their pursuit for public records, here’s a list of commonly asked questions: 

Can a request be submitted by non-residents of the state?

The law states that only California residents can request public records. However, other agencies and the United States citizens residing in other states have made requests and received the requested records.

Is there a records custodian in California?

No. The public records law in the state specifically tells people to contact individual agencies to gain access to records. 

What exemptions exist?

While some states have a specific list of records that can’t be accessed or are exempt from public viewing, California doesn’t. The state does grant exemptions to “any records that are not in the best public interest to be released.” 

In these particular cases, public information that pertains to safety protocols, building layouts, medical records, and records of that nature fall into this exemption category.

How long does that state have to respond?

California has 10 days to respond to a request. California does specify a specific response time. Other states do not. 

Is there an appeal process in place?

The California Public Records Act (CPRA) does not establish any type of administrative appeal. However, the law does leave room for individual agencies to create their own appeals process, though we did not find any.

What fees are associated with requesting public records?

Once a request for records has been made, the staff creates copies for a fee of 10 cents per page for standard documents. Additional fees can be incurred for postage charges, and the retrieval/return of records held off-site in archives. These direct costs may be waived if deemed appropriate in some instances. 

  • Updated December 3, 2020
  • States

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