What Is Considered a Public Record?

By Mary Jane Freeman - Updated March 23, 2017

Government records, from court cases to property deeds, are usually public records – that is, filed with or kept by a government agency and available for inspection by members of the general public. For instance, if you're interested in buying a vacant home on your street, you can obtain the owner's name by searching the county's land records at your local registrar or county clerk's office – sometimes online – since these documents are public records. However, certain records or information may be blocked from public view because it meets a privacy or confidentiality exemption under state or federal law.

Accessing Public Record

Generally, a public record is a document filed with or kept by a city, county, state or federal government agency in the ordinary course of business that is viewable by the public. Although public records are often documents, they can also be such things as maps, recordings, films, photographs, tapes, software, letters and books. Court cases are a common example of a public record. For instance, if you learned your neighbor John Doe was convicted of burglary a few years ago, you can request a copy of the case records from the courthouse. In some cases, this information can be retrieved online. For example, Florida and Maryland allow the public to search for civil, criminal and traffic records online. You can search by a party's name, such as John Doe, or case number. You can also order transcripts of the hearings and trial in Florida. You can even search for bankruptcy cases online using PACER, a national database.

Freedom of Information Act

In 1966, the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, became law. FOIA gives you the right to obtain records from a federal agency, such as the U.S. Department of State, regardless of whether the record was created by the agency or simply obtained by it. To do so, you submit a written request to the appropriate agency and describe the information you want in detail; there is no special form. Under FOIA, you can request any records created or obtained by the agency, so long as the record is in its control at the time of your request. You may also be required to pay a fee.

Exemptions Under FOIA

Your right to receive information under FOIA is not without limits. Records may be exempt from public disclosure under certain circumstances, for instance, because it would result in an unnecessary invasion of an individual's privacy or relates to a classified national security matter.

State Treatment of Confidential Information

Just as FOIA exempts certain information from public view, so do state governments. For example, Maryland, like many states, keeps adoption and personnel records confidential. This means members of the general public can't access it. However, Maryland permits a person in interest, usually the person the confidential information relates to such as the adoptee or employee, to access the information. Juvenile criminal records are another example of information sealed from public view.

About the Author

Based on the West Coast, Mary Jane Freeman has been writing professionally since 1994, specializing in the topics of business and law. Freeman's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including LegalZoom, Essence, Reuters and Chicago Sun-Times. Freeman holds a Master of Science in public policy and management and Juris Doctor. Freeman is self-employed and works as a policy analyst and legal consultant.

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