The best way to access public records is to go straight to the government. Identify the agency or level of government – local, state or federal – with the relevant record, and go that website. If the information isn't available online, it may still be found off-line in a file cabinet at the government offices. You can find a lot of information for free this way, although some agencies may require you to pay for the data.
Where in the Government?
Even at the federal level, there's no easy way to search every record held by every department. To get relevant results, you'll have to identify who has what you're looking for:
- Corporations are formed by filing paperwork with the state. To look up corporate filings, you need the website for the state in which the company incorporated.
- Civil and criminal cases in local county courts will be filed with the clerk of courts.
- Deeds, property liens and other real estate paperwork are filed in the county deeds office. Property taxes, however, are recorded by the county tax assessor.
- Government agencies keep their own files of regulatory cases where they had to sue or fine someone. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, keeps files of pollution-related civil cases and settlements.
If you're not sure where to look, call your local city hall or county commission office and ask for advice. You can also try searching for free sites that link to various sources of government records online.
Online Database Diving
Government websites aren't the only sites that post public records. If you can't find what you want online at the relevant agency, try using sites such as Government Attic. It's a website that posts public records acquired through various records requests. An online search may turn up other material someone has posted, for example as part of a political campaign.
Searching in Person
At time of writing, almost a third of government public records are not online. The only way to view them is if you visit the relevant government office or order copies. Going to the office and looking through records yourself is the cheaper choice. It may not be practical, however, if you're searching for information in, say, another state. If you need to request that staff take time to gather the records for a complex request, you may have to pay the government for its labor.
Having copies of public records sent to you usually requires a fee. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for instance, will mail copies of SEC public records, but it will require you to pay for them The more records and the more papers you want, the higher the cost. An Associated Press survey found that some bodies appear to charge prohibitively large fees.
Freedom of Information Requests
Sometimes, even though you have a right to the information, a government employee may say no. If you believe your request is valid, write the department or agency a letter asking for the files under state or federal freedom of information laws. The process is simple and doesn't take a lawyer: write a letter to the agency saying which records you need. Depending on which law under which you're filing – at the federal level or one of the 50 state laws – you may be entitled to a fee waiver.