Public Records

A public record is any type of document that collects information about a person or a group of people, and is available to the general public. These records include any records that governmental bodies are required by law to maintain, and to permit the public to access.

Background and origins of public records

Public records have existed for as long as civilization: from the time that sedentary groups of people were organized into societies, with specialization and division of labor, there has been a need to keep track of agriculture, commerce, taxation, religious rites, marriages, births and the accomplishments of kings.

Later this expanded to include detailed census information, complex royal genealogies, interpersonal disputes and court proceedings, as well as information about government decisions and actions.

What exactly counts as a public record?

Naturally, not all governmental information is considered "public."

Some government records are sealed, either for set limits of time or indefinitely. In closed adoptions, for example, adoption records are sealed. Most juvenile court proceedings and juvenile criminal records are sealed, though the rules regarding that may vary from state to state.

Other information may be available via a Freedom of Information Act request, but not made generally available to the public. If maintained by a governmental entity, public records do more than provide information; they can actually be admitted into evidence in some legal disputes and serve as prima facie evidence of certain facts. A broader view of public records includes any information that is made publicly available, even if not collected by a governmental agency.

Which records are considered public also varies a great deal by jurisdiction. Some states, like New York, are more open than others when it comes to making documents available to the public.

How public records get created

Generally speaking, public records are created when members of the public interact with governments or businesses that engage in record-keeping as part of that business. Much of this record-keeping is obligatory. For example, when someone is born, the first public record of that person gets created.

In some cases it may be possible to avoid some record-keeping, but evidence of prior records is necessary for participation in many aspects of modern life, so avoiding all record-keeping is impractical. For example, school enrollment requires a birth certificate.

Common examples of public records include:

  • Court records
  • Criminal records
  • Birth records
  • Death records
  • Marriage licenses
  • Child support orders
  • Bankruptcy orders
  • Child custody orders
  • Divorce orders
  • Driver’s license records
  • Voter registration
  • Property records
  • Some limited medical information like vaccination information, in states with immunization registries
  • Some portions of tax records

Many people believe that public records are created any time that a person interacts with a governmental office. This perspective is generally, though not always, true. Public agencies do not have a duty to create a public record, even in circumstances where the public would have the right to inspect such records. Hypothetically, a government agency could do business without the creation of a record, thereby removing a large burden in allowing public access to the information. Such a system would, ultimately, be unmanageable.

Who can access public records?

Viewing public records can be a critical first step in a background check because of the wealth of information in those records.

Public records are available to the public, and consequently, anyone can access them. That does not mean, however, that is easy to do so. Record-keepers, such as county clerks, are allowed charge reasonable fees for providing records to the public. Information may only be available in certain locations. Specific requests for records may have time-guidelines available for them. Some requests for records might require a person to fill out a request for records, which would then become part of the public record. The ability to access public records is often not as much of an issue as is the convenience, expense and ease of access.

What are the limits on the use of public records?

Even when public records are available, there are legal limitations on how people can use them. Generally speaking, public records can not be used to exclude people from access to something to which that person would otherwise have a right, such as housing or employment, even if use of that information accessed via other means might permit such use.

Visit our Do's and Don’ts section to learn more about the acceptable use of public records and, if you are not sure whether your desired use violates the law, please consult an attorney in your area for more guidance.

Public records and BeenVerified

BeenVerified acquires and consolidates available records so they can be searched simultaneously for information. We allow people to access public records through a variety of means, even without knowing the name of the person whose information you seek. Furthermore, if you find that you need access to records that are only available in person, we have a court runner service that can access local courthouse records.

Using BeenVerified can turn a process that might take weeks or months for one person into an easy process that anyone can do in minutes. It would take millions of individual searches on different federal, state, and local governmental and private databases to review the same amount of information available on BeenVerified.

Our system is easy to use and guides the searcher through the steps to complete a comprehensive search of public records. Check out BeenVerified's frequently asked questions or contact our support team.

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