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Wisconsin Public Records

The Wisconsin Open Records Act was enacted in 1981 and states that the public has a right to collect and analyze all public records unless it is expressly against the law. The state has more than 50 million records. 

Read through this comprehensive guide to understand the public records system in the state. You’ll find helpful resources to access criminal records, inmate records, court records, and vital records.

What does the Wisconsin public records law say?

In Wisconsin, the state law mimics many of the statutes in the federal law, also known as Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 

All branches of government are open for requests, which must be handled as quickly as possible, although more specific language does not exist in the law. 

The state attorney general is tasked with hearing complaints and disputes about requests, and can issue opinions to agencies that are generally followed. If a request is improperly dealt with by a public records officer, a fine of up to $1,000 could apply. This includes fee disputes, as fees are to be kept to direct actual cost of labor or copying. Fee waivers are available.

Wisconsin law says requesters do not have to be a citizen of the state to access the public records. 

How can a person access public records in Wisconsin?

Requesters can access public records online or by sending a formal request to the record-holding department. If a formal request is necessary, you can deliver it by mail, email, or by phone. 

State agencies differ, 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 office hours. As a result, online requests are best, but if you want to go in person you should call ahead.

Wisconsin criminal records

In Wisconsin, all individual history records from various local and county sources are centralized and organized into one database. Criminal background reports are available to the public.

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 mug shot 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 Wisconsin criminal records?

Criminal records including arrest records are available to employees through the Wisconsin Department of Justice Crime Information Bureau. Most employers conduct a search using a person’s name as opposed to one with fingerprints. While fingerprint-based records are more accurate, most employers opt for the name-based search because it’s cheaper and easier to do. 

To conduct a search online, simply click on the link above. You will need to set up an account to access records. 

The CIB is responsible for the maintenance of criminal history information submitted by local law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin. The unit maintains more than 1.3 million records, which have been received from law enforcement agencies, district attorney offices, clerks of court, and municipal courts throughout the State of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin inmate records

Inmate records for Wisconsin consist of offenders that are held across the state prisons, correctional inmate facilities, detention centers, and penal institutions throughout the state. Overseen by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, they may also include information on sentencing, the class and type of 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 Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin inmate records?

Through the Offender Locator portal, information can be attained on inmates within the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WDOC). There, users are allowed access to information regarding the inmate status of any individual throughout the system. Access to the portal requires entering an offender’s last name or ID number.

The system will return search results matching data points, with the following additional fields: first name, birth year, race, county where the disposition of the person’s criminal case occurred (or where incarcerated), zip code, and current status. 

Members of the public can obtain inmate information or locate inmates by using the search engine tool provided by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. There are also web services managed by the county’s sheriff’s office that can be used to narrow down the search to specific county jails.

Wisconsin court records

Accessing court records can be complicated. In most states, a requester must identify the courthouse where a case was heard and request documents from the court clerk. In Wisconsin, the process is easier. The state has an online database.

What’s on a court record?

In most cases, court records are quite large and come with many different documents. Most people find the following documents the most helpful: 

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

Where can a person find Wisconsin court records?

Wisconsin has an online database that can provides instant access to court records. The system holds records from circuit courts, the court of appeals, and the supreme court. To search records, you’ll need some basic information. You can search for records by name, birthdate, or business name. The more information you can provide, the more likely you are to find the records. 

If you can’t find the records you’re looking for, you’ll need to go access records the old fashion way. You’ll need to contact the court clerk in the courthouse where the case was heard. This person can provide public court documents to you, although you may need to fill out a formal request. 

Wisconsin vital records

The Wisconsin Department of Health Vital Records office maintains all birth records, marriage records, divorce records, death records, and partnerships records. For partnerships, start dates and termination dates may be needed to access the records.

What information is needed to request a vital record?

To obtain a vital record in Wisconsin, a person must provide certain information to aid in the search. The information needed includes: 

  • 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 Wisconsin vital records?

Due to COVID-19, in person appointments are suspended as the vital records offices are closed. Mail, online, and phone services are still available. State officials encourage people to use the online option, which can be done by clicking the link above. 

To access vital records, you need to be listed on the record or be a family member. While vital records are considered “public” they’re only released to certain people. You’ll likely need to prove your identity by providing an ID. 

Mail orders should be sent to the State Vital Records Office, PO Box 309, Madison, WI 53701-0309. 

If you have a court imposed deadline or have additional questions, please email dhsvitalrecords@dhs.wisconsin.gov or call 608-266-1373. 

Frequently asked questions about Wisconsin records

To learn more about the open records law and specific Wisconsin statutes, here’s a list of frequently asked questions.

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

Yes, requests can be submitted by non-residents of the state. Any United States citizen can request records from Wisconsin. 

Is there a legal custodian in Wisconsin?

There is no definite records custodian in Wisconsin, however, the attorney general gives advice and guidance to agencies concerning all matters of public records.

What exemptions exist?

The Wisconsin Open Records Act sought to reduce the number of exemptions on file. There are eight exemptions that deal with matters such as law enforcement and trade secrets as defined by the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Other exemptions protect personnel records or some records may contain redaction of personal details or identifiable information, like a person’s home address. 

How long does that state have to respond?

In the state of Wisconsin, there are no timelines set for state officials to respond to a request. Delays without explanation can lead to disputes among the parties involved.

Is there an appeals process in place?

Should any disputes arise, the state of Wisconsin provides for an appeals process that’s in place. The process involves filing with the court that the agency in question resides in within 45 days from the time the final response was given.

What are the fees associated with requesting public records?

The fees associated with requesting public records, which includes getting copies of records, are nominal. Municipalities charge fees for the copies depending on whether it is black and white or a colored copy. The black and white copies are relatively cheaper than the colored copies.

The media or those requesting the public records for public interest may get fees waived.

  • Updated December 5, 2020
  • States

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