Whether you live in Raleigh or New York City, you can request public records that are held in the state of North Carolina. The state has an open policy, but if you’re trying to request documents of any kind it’s important to understand the system.
As you might expect, requesting public records can be difficult. Records are held at different agencies. Some require a request form, others are searchable online. Navigating the state’s world of public records requires some direction.
To help, we’ve created this guide, which is specific to the state North Carolina, to help those looking specifically for criminal, inmate, court, and vital records.
Table of Contents
- 1 What does the North Carolina public records law say?
- 2 How can a person access public records in North Carolina?
- 3 North Carolina criminal records
- 4 North Carolina inmate records
- 5 North Carolina court records
- 6 North Carolina vital records
- 7 Frequently asked questions about North Carolina records
- 7.1 Can a request be submitted by non-residents of the state?
- 7.2 Is there a records custodian in North Carolina?
- 7.3 What exemptions exist?
- 7.4 How long does that state have to respond?
- 7.5 Is there an appeals process in place?
- 7.6 Are estate records available?
- 7.7 What fees are associated with requesting public records?
What does the North Carolina public records law say?
North Carolina’s Public Records Law can be defined as expansive, but without any real form of enforcement. Agencies cannot ask a requester why they are searching for certain records, and there is a separate office that negotiates fees based on requests to maintain minimal costs.
There is no time limit on when requests must be completed and there is currently no formal appeal system process, so requesters must deal with good faith agencies that have the support of the law on their side.
Under the public records law in North Carolina, individuals are entitled to public inspection of records held by all public agencies. The term ‘public agency’ is defined as any agency of North Carolina government or any of its subdivisions, including every public officer and public office, board, commission, institution, bureau, department, council, unit, or authority of the state government or a subdivision of government.
Public information includes all public meetings and also includes: Both paper and electronic files, mail, emails, letters, maps, photographs, books, sound recordings, films, magnetic tapes, artifacts, and documentary material. Also, drafts that have been received by an agency of the government become state property and thus, are classified as property of the people.
More information can be found on the state website, NorthCarolina.gov.
How can a person access public records in North Carolina?
In some cases, accessing public records in North Carolina requires a physical form to request the document. In other cases, there are online databases that can provide 24/7 access to information; no form required.
If a physical form is required, it can be sent by mail, email, or by phone to the corresponding department.
Note that state agencies and employees are not required to create and/or compile a government record if one does not currently exist.
With each department different, expect some slight variations to the rules if you’re accessing records from multiple locations.
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 require masks and others 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.
North Carolina criminal records
The criminal records within the state of North Carolina are classified as official documents that detail all criminal activities committed in the state. All of these documents are prepared and maintained by local and state law enforcement groups, courts, agencies, detention, and correctional facilities.
Criminal records describe felonies and misdemeanors of alleged and convicted criminals as well as records of arrest, indictment, and conviction.
What’s on a criminal record?
A criminal record provides a detailed record of a person’s history with law enforcement. These records are taken from various sources and include a person’s arrest records, prior convictions, and incarcerations within the state’s prisons.
More specifically, a criminal record or a background check will provide the following information:
- Personal information like a person’s name, birth date, nationality, etc.
- A mugshot, plus a full set of fingerprints
- A list of distinguishing features like tattoos, birthmarks, or other identifying marks
- Type of offense (misdemeanor or felony) and description of the crime
Where can a person find North Carolina criminal records?
- Resource: North Carolina Court System
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety works with the state’s court system to provide criminal background checks. How expansive criminal records are in the state of North Carolina vary from county to county.
Using the link above, you can request background checks that are fingerprint-based, also known within the state of North Carolina as the ‘Right to Review’ record. The processing fee for requests for criminal records is $14.
North Carolina inmate records
The state of North Carolina has approximately 31,000 inmates within its corrections system. Inmate records can provide information on current inmates that are housed within any correctional facility within the state.
What’s on an inmate record?
The information on inmate records varies from state to state; in Maine the records usually contain a combination of personal information and specific details about a person’s incarceration situation. Public access to inmate records can provide the following information when accessed:
- Personal information (first/last name, birthdate, gender)
- Identifying information (tatoos, birthmarks, etc.)
- A mug shot
- Inmate location
- Inmate registration number
- Jail transfer information
- Custody status
Where can a person find North Carolina inmate records?
Information can be accessed by visiting the North Carolina Department of Public Safety page and entering in the inmate’s first/last name, gender, race, date of birth, or incarceration identification number. From there, a requester will have access to all of the inmates matching the criteria.
The same system can provide information on parolees. The search function allows you to search for active inmates or active parolees.
North Carolina court records
North Carolina citizens have the authority to search for, obtain, and utilize public records that are held by the state government, county government, municipality, or city. Under the Freedom of Information Law, requesters have the tools necessary to acquire records easily and more efficiently.
What’s on a court record?
In most cases, court records are quite extensive and come with several various documents. Most people find these documents to be the most helpful:
- Court minutes
- Case files
- Orders of the court
- Judgement documentation
- Jury records and files
- Witness documentation
Where can a person find North Carolina court records?
- Resource: North Carolina Judicial Branch
In order to access court records, a request can be made at a clerk’s court office in any county. To find a case, you can use the court terminals to search using the defendant name, case number, and/or victim/witness name. Copies of any paper documents can be processed for a nominal fee.
An individual can access information about civil, estate cases, or special proceedings in the North Carolina state court system on self-service public terminals located in the clerk of court’s office in any county. View the user’s manual for the system where the information is stored. Paper copies can be prepared by staff for a small fee.
North Carolina vital records
In the state of North Carolina, there are offices that contain all of the birth records, marriage records, and death certificates. Records that mark milestones are known as vital records.
What information is needed to request a vital record?
To obtain vital records in North Carolina, like a birth certificate or a death record, a person must provide certain information to aid in the search. The information includes the following:
- the location of the event
- the approximate date of the event
- the full name of the person, including maiden names
- a case file number for divorce records
- the license number for a marriage record
Where can a person find North Carolina vital records?
- Resource: North Carolina Vital Records
A subsidiary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, North Carolina Vital Records houses the birth, death, and marriage certificates of the state and they can be obtained at the Register of Deeds (ROD) office in whichever county the event took place.
Through the State Archives of North Carolina, a person has access to several holdings that include:
- Death certificates (1939-1979)
- Microfilmed indexes for births and deaths
- Cohabitation records (1866-1867)
- Microfilmed marriage registers and indexes
Currently, North Carolina’s vital records department has suspended its walk-in service temporarily, so all services must be done via online or by mail. Also, services in the department will be delayed and delivery times will fluctuate.
Frequently asked questions about North Carolina records
To further assist North Carolina citizens in the pursuit of public records, here is a list of FAQs to help:
Can a request be submitted by non-residents of the state?
Yes. Anyone can request and receive records that pertain to public business.
Is there a records custodian in North Carolina?
No. The state’s public records policy doesn’t list a records custodian. Records are available with each state department.
What exemptions exist?
An agency in North Carolina may refuse to disclose requested records if one or more of the following exemptions apply:
- Communication between attorneys and government clients made within the scope of the attorney-client relationship
- Local and state tax information
- Public enterprise billing information
- Personally identifiable admissions information for North Carolina public universities
- Trade secrets
- Specific government lawsuit settlements
- Criminal investigation records
- Criminal intelligence information records
- Information obtained via a 911 database
- Emergency response plans
- Photographs and/or recordings of autopsies
This is an abbreviated list as there are numerous other exceptions that can be applied under the state’s public records law.
How long does that state have to respond?
There is no general statute in the state of North Carolina that specifies a time.
Is there an appeals process in place?
There is no official appeals process in the state of North Carolina, so if a request is denied for any reason, you can ask for a reason for the denial. Non-exempt portions of the record can be released or the exempt portions can be redacted.
Are estate records available?
Yes. North Carolina considers all real estate records public.
What fees are associated with requesting public records?
Agencies in the state of North Carolina only have the power to be able to charge for copies, unless an ‘extensive amount of labor’ is involved in providing the public records. In some instances, the State Chief Information Office can mediate fees by a requester.