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Montana Public Records

The State of Montana has one of the oldest traditions of freedom of information laws in the country. It first established laws promoting public access to documents in 1895. The state drafted a new constitution in 1972 requiring it to rewrite Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws.

While this sounds good, it is difficult to win FOIA cases in Montana because there are no penalties for government agencies that violated the act and there is also no administrative appeal. Montana also does not have a public records custodian, so there is virtually no way to force agencies to disclose information.

To help you access public records in Montana, this state-specific guide will provide direction to find criminal, inmate, court, and vital records. 

What does the Montana public records law say?

Any citizen from any state can request public information from government agencies within the State of Montana. No government departments, branches or agencies are exempted. However, exemptions are extremely broad so many specific items may be exempted. For instance, private writings and those with privacy issues, such as individual or public safety concerns as well as trade secrets) are the two listed exemptions. These can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

Also note, there is no enforcement of the freedom of information law in Montana and there is no administrative appeal.

There isn’t a specified time frame for government officials in Montana to respond to FOIA requests. There isn’t any case law that equates delaying a response to a request as a denial. All of this makes it incredibly difficult to appeal in court.

To learn more about public records search and what is spelled out in the Montana Constitution, you can visit Mt.gov.

How can a person access public records in Montana?

For public records access in Montana, a person must submit a public records request. The request is sent via mail, email, mail, or by phone to the record-holding department. 

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

In general, a public records request should include: 

  • Your name and contact information, including an email, phone number, and mailing address
  • 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

Due to COVID-19, some public offices may have limited hours of operation. As a result, online requests are best, but if you want to go in person you should call ahead.

Minnesota criminal records

The public can obtain criminal records for those in Montana, but it is challenging as most have to go through individual courts to obtain case history. Those who tend to seek out criminal records are employers doing background checks. Some charity groups and churches also require a background check before approving a volunteer’s application. Those seeking to adopt or foster a child can also expect to be included in a background check.

What’s on a criminal record?

A criminal record is a document that lists all contacts and interactions with law enforcement and the criminal courts. Depending on the state, it may not include cases where a person was charged but found innocent. It does list convictions and time spent in incarceration.

Most criminal records include five basic things:

  • The person’s name, nationality and birthday
  • A mugshot
  • A full set of fingerprints
  • A list of distinguishing features such as tattoos
  • A list of misdemeanor and felony crimes with descriptions.

Where can a person find Montana criminal records?

The Montana Department of Justice has a public record search for the state’s criminal record database. The service includes only the state’s public criminal history information. There is a $20 fee per request. You can use the service as a registered user or for public users.

Montana records include information such as:

  • Notations of arrests and identifiable descriptions
  • Complaints, indictments
  • Information filed in court and any related dispositions
  • Detentions and sentences
  • Correctional status
  • Release
  • Information in the State of Montana includes fingerprints, photos with some exceptions.

Montana inmate records

Montana has an estimated 1,495 inmates in all of its levels of prisons. Inmate records have a wealth of information that can be helpful on many levels. Employers find it beneficial to understand a person’s past or where they currently stand in their sentence. Likewise, reporters also use these types of services for stories related to either the person’s case or a topic that includes the case. Crime victims also regularly check the status of offenders to be prepared should they come up for parole or release.

What’s on an inmate record?

Montana offers basic information on its inmate records including the person’s legal name, gender and birthdate, a mug shot, their inmate registration and jail transfer information and the custody status.

Where can a person find Montana inmate records?

Montana has an online search site through the Montana Department of Corrections called the Correctional Offender Network Search. It is a free service but those seeking information do need to have the Department of Corrections identification number and the offender’s first and last name to do a search.

Those interested can also request the entire Montana Department of Corrections Offender Web database that includes victim’s information, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and sexual and violent offender registry.

Montana court records

Some of the largest files the public can obtain are court records. Because court cases tend to be complicated and involve a lot of testimony, briefs and evidence, they can be huge files. Court records typically contain all court transcripts and action related to a case. They also include dockets, case files, court minutes, court orders, sentencing and judgement records, as well as jury and witness documentation.

What’s on a court record?

Court records are typically large files of information and can include documents from several courts, depending on the case. It can contain all court transcripts as well as information on all action in a case. Some of the documents requesters find in court files include dockets, court minutes, case files, court orders, sentencing or judgement documentation, jury records and files and witness documentation.

Where can a person find Montana court records?

Montana doesn’t have a full online system for all court cases. You can look up Montana Supreme Court decisions through the Montana Judicial Branch website and also find the appropriate district and local court for your area.

However, those seeking court records will need to contact the local court or district court where the case was heard to obtain records. 

If you are unsure where to start, the local clerk of court for Superior Court is a good place to start, although someone seeking records could be referred to another court like probate or magistrate court, depending on where the case was heard.

Montana vital records

Most Americans will request a vital record at some point in their lives. Vital records are those marking lifetime events, such as a Montana birth, marriage, divorce, and death. These are records commonly used to obtain driver’s licenses, passports, participate in sports, go to school or geneology. People also may need them for security clearances for a new job or be hired at all.

What information is needed to request a vital record?

Those seeking vital records will need some information to obtain them. This has become a key issue because of privacy concerns. To request a vital record, the requester will need the approximate date and location of the event, the full name of the person involved (and that includes maiden names), and a case or license numbers for divorce or marriage records.

Where can a person find Montana vital records?

Those seeking vital records in Montana can do so through the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services website. Requesters can order online, call a toll-free number to a third-party vendor called VitalCheck Network Inc, or place an order by mail. There is a fee and requesters must pay by credit card when ordering online or on the phone. Requesters can send a check by mail.

Birth certificates cost $12 each. Death certificates are $15 each.

If you prefer, you can request vital records like death records through the mail. You need to mail an application and a money order to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, PO Box 4210, Helena, MT 59604.

Montana requires identification to process requests. Proper identification is either a picture ID with a signature and date of birth such as driver’s license, state ID card, passport, military ID or tribal ID or two forms of identification where one contains a signature. These include things such as a social security card, work ID card, car registration, utility bill with current address, or voter registration card.

Frequently asked questions about Montana records

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

Yes, a requester can live anywhere in the United States and get records from Montana.

Is there a records custodian in Minnesota?

No, there is no records custodian in Montana.

What exemptions exist?

There are broad exemptions to Montana’s Freedom of Information laws. Two are related to privacy and security issues. Both can be interpreted extremely broadly although the strictest interpretation is for trade secrets and personal or state security issues.

How long does that state have to respond?

There is no statute requiring state government agencies within Montana to reply within a specific time frame.

Is there an appeals process in place?

Yes and no. While requesters can take FOIA issues to court, there is no formal appeals process in Montana. Since there is no public records custodian, there is no agency to appeal a decision. The only answer is to file a lawsuit in court.

What fees are associated with requesting public records?

The state law says that fees associated with public records are $.10 a page to cover copying costs and search fees. Requesters get a half-hour of free search time but are charged $8.50 an hour for labor after that. There are no fee waivers.

  • Updated November 26, 2020
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