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Public Records: Best Public Record Sites Reviewed
Public records and free information are the bedrock of democracy. They allow us to keep an eye on the government, make sure our judicial system functions properly, and learn more about the actions taken by both elected and non elected officials.
In the past 50 years, legislation passed on the state and federal level has clarified the public’s right to access records held by government bodies without the need of a statement of intent, while placing restrictions on an agency’s right to deny access to records.
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 patience, you can generally get access to what you need.
Table of Contents
- 1 Public Records: Best Public Record Sites Reviewed
- 1.1 What Are Public Records?
- 1.2 Public Records Providers Reviews
- 1.3 Federal Public Records
- 1.4 State, City and County Records
- 1.5 Sex Offender Information
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. Additionally, it’s important to state that not all records held by government bodies are public records. In fact, many types of records are protected by key exemptions, such as in the case that they hold private or confidential information.
The following types of records are not public records:
- Tax returns
- School records
- Library records
- Most vital records
- Juvenile court records
- Records containing trade secrets or or other sensitive information
Public Records Providers Reviews
There are a lot of websites that provide access to a variety of public records in one place. We’ve reviewed most of them; here are links to them:
- Instant Checkmate Review
- Truth Finder Review
- BeenVerified Review
- Intelius Review
- PeopleFinders Review
- eVerify Review
- Check People Review
- US Search Review
- People Smart Review
- FreebackgroundCheck.org Review
- Spokeo Review
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) is a public records law passed in 1967 that requires transparency from all US government agencies. Anyone can submit a public records request from a government agency, and that agency is required by law (although there are certain exemptions for a number of types of official records), 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.
While the FOIA only applies to public records held by federal agencies, all 50 states have passed similar legislation that applies to records held by state and local government bodies. These state laws are often known as “sunshine laws.”
All Federal court records are available online at PACER.gov, an electronic public access service that is overseen by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. This includes all Federal civil court cases, criminal charges, as well as bankruptcies. In all, there are over 500 million documents on PACER.
Although there is no fee for registering for PACER, using the service to access and view court documents is not free. In fact, they charge 10 cents per page viewed. Yes, they are using a model stuck in the 20th century. However, there is a $3 cap on the price of a single document, so you won’t be charged $20 to view a 200-page court document.
The reason for this old-fashioned, expensive pay model is that Congress never applied the funds to make the database free to access, so the only way PACER can be supported and maintained is through charging user fees.
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.
Licenses issued by a Federal agency are generally available in an online search. Pilots, for example, are searchable at the FAA airmen website, and radio operators at the FCC website.
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. They can be requested at the County Clerk’s Office.
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. Criminal records are usually public information that can be accessed via paid background checks, although certain states release limited criminal history information, only.
In addition to local law enforcement agencies, many states have a central repository for criminal history information that includes information on arrests, convictions, and more that occur in the state.
However, the level of access granted to this information granted to civilians varies considerably: some states have a searchable online database of criminal history information, while others do not. Usually, these websites require you to register to use them and charge a fee for each search, even if the search yields no results.
Sex Offender Information
If a person commits a sex-related crime, kidnapping, or a crime against a minor, they are typically required to register as a sex offender. All 50 states maintain a sex offender registries that can be searched online by members of the general public.
Typically, low-level offenders will not be listed in the online database, but those convicted of moderate or serious crimes will be. State sex offender registry websites usually allow you to search by name, area, city, or GPS location, and most have a “non-compliant” offenders search that allows you to search a special database of offenders that do not comply with the rules, and either fail to notify the state law enforcement authority of a change in address, or halt communication with the authorities.
Often, state sex offender registry websites will allow users to sign up for an email or text alert system that will let them know if a certain offender has changed addresses, or a new offender has moved into the neighborhood.
Births, Deaths, Divorces, and Marriages
This information is usually maintained by the county clerk where the event happened. Whether birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates are public information or not usually depends on the state. Marriage records and divorce records tend to be public, but birth and death certificates less than 100 years old are usually only accessible by a select group of authorized persons due to the sensitive personal information they contain. For older records you may need to contact the state department of health, department of vital statistics, or even the state archives to get access.
Real Estate and Property Records – 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 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.