How to Access Police Records for Free

By Lori Spencer - Updated April 05, 2017

Whether you are looking for a copy of a police report, researching a potential job applicant, doing a criminal background check on a new dating partner, or just want to find out what law enforcement agencies have in their files about you, law enforcement records are fairly easy to get at little to no cost. In the United States, this is usually done through submitting a written request for the records under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and/or the Privacy Act. Since criminal records are considered a matter of public interest and safety, every individual is allowed to request them for any reason. The government agency is not allowed to ask you why you want the records.

Make an informal request to your local police or sheriff's department first; this is often the quickest and easiest way to get a copy of a police report or arrest record concerning yourself or a member of your immediate family. Sometimes it is as simple as visiting your local police department, identifying yourself and asking for the documents. Copies can then be provided to you for a nominal duplication fee.

Write a Freedom of Information Act request letter to the public information office for the law enforcement agency you want documents from. Many free FOIA request letter templates are available online; some are customized to suit the local laws of your state or country of residence.

Specify in your request letter the exact documents you need copies of. Be as specific as possible in your request, including the date, time and address of the incident, names of persons involved, and any other pertinent details. If you know the police report number, include it with your request.

Sign, date and mail the letter (certified mail is recommended, though not required in most states). Some law enforcement agencies now allow you to submit Freedom of Information Act requests online via email, or by fax. Check with the specific agency you are requesting documents from to ascertain which methods of delivery they will accept for open records requests.

Always retain a copy of the request for your files, along with proof of delivery method and date – such as a certified mail receipt or fax transmission report page.

Wait at least seven to 10 days for a response to your request. Laws vary by state as to how much time the government agency has to either provide the requested documents or offer an explanation as to why they are not available. In Texas, for example, an agency must provide the documents within 10 days unless the department refuses under one of the 26 exemptions to the state's open records law. At that point, the department must request an opinion from the Texas attorney general. The attorney general’s office must issue an opinion on your request within 60 days or else the information request will be automatically granted.

Follow up if you believe your open records request was handled improperly or if you need help getting police records from a law enforcement agency. In most states, the state attorney general's office has a Freedom of Information compliance officer whose job is to ensure that government agencies are not unlawfully restricting people's right to public information.

Tip

Check the laws in your state or municipality regarding open records; in addition to the federal FOIA and privacy laws, most U.S. states have their own laws governing release of public records. Most criminal histories are subject to local or state law rather than federal law.

Warning

Upon receipt of the requested documents, you may find that portions have been "blacked out" or redacted. This is usually because that redacted information is protected under a number of exemptions including protecting another living person's privacy; information gathered by law enforcement in the detection, investigation and prosecution of a crime; names of confidential informants; and other exceptions.

If you feel that the information was improperly withheld, you may appeal the decision. In your appeal request, cite the specific exemptions of the law that were used to justify the redaction of records, and clearly articulate your reasons why you feel this decision was incorrect. Check your local laws to find out how much time the agency has to respond to your appeal request.

About the Author

Lori Spencer has written professionally since 1986. She is the author of three nonfiction books, is writing her fourth and provides content for eHow and LIVESTRONG.COM. She also produces and hosts a weekly radio show. Her subjects of expertise include history, media, music, film and the performing arts.

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