Pennsylvania Public Records
Since it began recording public records in 1775, the state of Pennsylvania has an astounding 100 million public records that the general public has access to. Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law gives all citizens access to public records, but tracking them down can be tough. As in most states, public records are scattered across multiple state agencies and departments.
To make the process easier, we have compiled a state-specific guide to assist you in understanding the laws and provide instructions on how to access criminal, inmate, court, and vital records across the 67 counties in Pennsylvania.
Table of Contents
- 1 What does the Pennsylvania public records law say?
- 2 How can a person access public records in Pennsylvania?
- 3 Pennsylvania criminal records
- 4 Pennsylvania inmate records
- 5 Pennsylvania court records
- 6 Pennsylvania vital records
- 7 Frequently asked questions about Pennsylvania records
What does the Pennsylvania public records law say?
According to the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, anyone is able to access the public records in the state, and this act covers all three branches of government with only certain court records exempted. Additional exemptions are listed for personal records, records that could compromise public safety, and documents that contain trade secrets.
As far as response times from agencies are concerned, the state government must respond within five business days.
If a request is denied, there is an appeals process. A requester can contact the state’s Office of Open Records, which can issue opinions to other agencies. In order to force records into disclosure, the requester must file a suit in court.
In Pennsylvania, the fees associated with records requests are limited, with agencies only being able to charge for the actual costs of duplicating a record. This is more conservative than some states, which charge for staff time and resources.
How can a person access public records in Pennsylvania?
Public records are available online or through a formal records request. If a request is required, it can be delivered by mail, email, 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.
Pennsylvania criminal records
In the state of Pennsylvania, criminal records are most commonly accessed by employers who are looking to execute a background check on potential employees. To assist employees in finding a person’s criminal records, we’ve provided some information and resources below.
What’s on a criminal record?
A criminal record provides a detailed record of a person’s interactions with law enforcement. These records are pulled from various sources and include arrest records, convictions, and incarcerations within the state’s four prisons.
More specifically, a criminal record or a background check will provide the following information:
- Personal information like a person’s name, birthday, nationality, etc.
- A mugshot and full set of fingerprints
- A list of distinguishing features like tattoos and other physical attributes
- The type of offense (misdemeanor or felony) and description of the crime
Where can a person find Pennsylvania criminal records?
Criminal records in Pennsylvania are official documents that contain the details of the criminal activity of a single person and are kept at every level of every jurisdiction – from municipal, county, and state levels. They are gathered from all types of criminal courts from across the county and state.
The Pennsylvania State Police maintain the records and provide an online database to conduct a search. Through the Pennsylvania Access to Criminal History (PATCH), requesters can apply for criminal background checks on an individual.
It is also possible to access dispositions on criminal cases by reviewing court docket sheets that are located at the Pennsylvania Judiciary web portal.
Pennsylvania inmate records
Inmate records in Pennsylvania consist of offenders that are held across the prisons, correctional inmate facilities, parish jails, and other penal institutions throughout the state. They may also include information on sentencing, the class of the offense, the parish where a case was tried, and the facility location of the inmate.
What’s on an inmate record?
The information listed on an inmate record varies, but in Pennsylvania 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 like a person’s name, birthdate, and gender
- A mug shot
- Inmate location
- Inmate registration number
- Jail transfer information
- Custody status
Where can a person find Pennsylvania inmate records?
- Resource: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
Pennsylvania criminal records are organized through online record depositories which can be accessed through the courts, law enforcement agency buildings, or government databases.
The Inmate/Parolee Locator serves as the database which contains information on every inmate and parolee within the state that is currently under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections (DOC). The site is updated on a daily basis to ensure accuracy.
Pennsylvania court records
Court records in Pennsylvania include a multitude of information produced through court proceedings. For people that are searching for certain court records, there are resources listed below. It’s important to note that court records can be some of the most difficult records to procure since they are usually held across several courts in the state of Pennsylvania.
What’s on a court record?
In the majority of cases, court records are quite large and come with several varying documents. Most people find these documents the most helpful:
- Court minutes
- Case files
- Orders of the court
- Judgement documentation
- Jury records and files
- Witness documentation
Where can a person find Pennsylvania court records?
- Resource: Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania
Requesting court records is usually the most difficult request. It’s not uncommon for a state to require requesters to visit a specific courthouse, like a county court, to request records in person. However, Pennsylvania has many of its records online.
A public records search for court documents in this state can return information on civil cases, traffic cases, criminal cases, landlord-tenant cases, and non-traffic cases. You can search and view individual court case information free of charge by visiting the portal, where you will be able to find the following records:
- Appellate court case information (supreme court, superior court and commonwealth court);
- Criminal courts of common pleas
- Magisterial district court case information including:
- civil cases
- criminal cases
- traffic cases
- non-traffic cases
- landlord/tenant cases
Requesters that wish to order paper case records that are maintained by a magisterial district court office need to speak with someone at the courthouse. For complex requests, the magisterial district court may ask you to fill out a request form.
Pennsylvania vital records
Similarly to most states, Pennsylvania has an office that keeps track of its vital records. The vital records include birth records, marriage records, and death records.
What information is needed to request a vital record?
A request for information can be done via Pennsylvania’s State Registrar & Vital Records site, where interested parties can provide relevant information about a specific record. This information may include:
- 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 Pennsylvania vital records?
As the official custodian of vital records for the state of Pennsylvania, the Bureau of Health Statistics and Registries, which is overseen by the department of health, has been in charge of files since 1906. Through their online portal, it is possible to obtain birth certificates, death certificates, certified copies of marriage licenses, and fetal death certificates.
Marriage and divorce certificates for the state are available from any county courthouse in the state where the document was issued.
Frequently asked questions about Pennsylvania records
To further assist citizens in their search for public records within the state of Pennsylvania, here’s a list of commonly asked questions:
Can a request be submitted by non-residents of the state?
Yes. The freedom of information act gives every citizen the right to access records.
Is there a records custodian in Pennsylvania?
No, there is no designated records custodian for the state.
What exemptions exist?
Currently, there are 30 exemptions in Pennsylvania, with 39 statutory exclusions, making it one of the more specific than most states in regards to public records laws. Some of the exempted files include donor information, private information of employees, trade secrets, work files of public servants, records that would potentially compromise computer network security, and more.
How long does that state have to respond?
The state of Pennsylvania has five days to respond to any requests for documents.
Is there an appeals process in place?
Yes, but only after you have gotten an opinion from the Office of Open Records.
What fees are associated with requesting public records?
The fees for requesting public records in Pennsylvania are somewhat limited, with agencies only charging for the price of duplicating records. There may be no charges for the reviewal of documents or searching for them. Extensive searches may incur more costs if outside professionals are involved. As for appeals, they are possible, but only after you receive an opinion from the Office of Open Records.