There are a number of reasons you might need access to public records. These records could range from marriage documents to criminal records to tax returns. In many instances, you may be able to find the information you seek online, thanks to increasing digitization by government entities. In other cases, a trip to your local courthouse, town hall or county clerk might be in order. For any records that are not made public, you can file a Freedom of Information Act request, and you will later be granted access.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
It's often possible to access public records for free via online searches through government entities or local historical societies. If records are not available online, you may still be able to access them for free with the help of a staff member. Some records may be visited in person at a variety of repositories like libraries or the National Archives.
Why You'd Need to Access Public Records
Public records include everything from birth and death records to court dockets to property deeds. Due to the wide-ranging nature of public records, there are countless reasons you might need access. For instance, if you were conducting genealogy research on members of your family, you might visit your county clerk to find birth, marriage or death records. Census documents and property deeds could help to paint a fuller picture of where a relative was and what she was doing at a particular point in her life.
Often, individuals find a need for birth and marriage records when a family member has passed away. Death certificates typically request the full birth name and birthplace of a person. This scenario plays out particularly frequently for those who have moved many times, suffered memory loss or have few remaining relatives.
If you are seeking to settle a grievance regarding your home, property or other land dispute, you might need access to information about surrounding parcels of land, the tax rates of your neighbors and building permits granted by your jurisdiction. All these should be matters of public record and available upon request. Many counties have digitized their property tax rolls, making this sort of search even easier.
Criminal records are also a matter of public record unless they have been sealed or expunged. Certain high-profile cases might be kept private during the course of a trial, but other court proceedings should always be accessible to the public. Sometimes, this information is available online through a county or state court’s digital files. In other cases, you will need to visit a court or local law enforcement agency to view criminal records.
The minutes from public forums, like a board of education meeting or town hall debate, should always be a matter of record available to all. The jurisdiction overseeing these events should document the items discussed. Increasingly, these notes are also being digitized.
How Do You Access Public Records Online for Free?
Many local, county and state courts, law enforcement outfits, boards and clerks are now digitizing their public records. Tax rolls, birth and death certificates and property transactions are usually held by the jurisdiction where they took place. The National Archives is also an excellent source for public records of all kinds that are not considered federal records.
When beginning a search for public records, first identify the website for the entity that would be most likely to hold the record. If you are unable to locate the record in digital form via the web, a phone call or email to the clerk or contact person can help point you in the right direction.
How Do You Access Public Records Offline for Free?
If the records you’re seeking are not available online, start by contacting someone at the repository where you believe the information resides. Sometimes, you will be permitted to stop by and peruse records yourself. In other cases, a staff member at the facility will pull the record for you. In still other instances, you can expect the record to be pulled by staff and sent to you. The latter instance is more likely to incur a fee, however.
When in doubt, a call to your local town or county clerk, historical society or library can help to point you in the right direction.