Searching public records in the US
There are dozens of different public records available for you to search, whether you are trying to find a long-lost friend or family member, checking out a prospective employee’s background, or just trying to find out if your new partner has any skeletons in their closet. Whatever the reason that you have decided to search public records for information on an individual in the US, there are some restrictions and rules that you should be aware of, even though the Freedom of Information Act has opened up many of these documents to the public for the first time. For example, in some states, documents relating to an individual’s birth, marriage and death may only be available to close family until a certain number of years pass after the record was created. Also, while employers may be able to search for details such as criminal records and arrest records relating to applicants, some states don’t allow you to use this information when deciding whether to employ someone; unless they have given you their permission to carry out the search, or if they are going to be working with children. If you want to know exactly what information you can expect to gain access to in your local state or county, the staff at your local courthouse and library will be able to give you help and advice.
In fact, these people are the experts, no matter what your query is on searching public documents and records. Although most people these days use Internet searches, some people prefer to dig through archived documents, while others are looking for records that are so old they haven’t yet been transferred to computer systems. This is more common amongst genealogists researching their family tree than those checking out if a new boyfriend is telling the truth about being divorced!
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law that entitles individuals to request access to records from any federal agency. It is an essential tool for promoting transparency and accountability in government, as it allows citizens to request and obtain information about the operations and activities of federal agencies.
FOIA applies to records held by executive branch agencies, including federal departments and agencies, as well as certain independent agencies. It does not apply to records held by Congress, the courts, or state or regional governments.
To request records under FOIA, individuals must submit a written request to the agency that holds the records. The request must specify the records being sought and be made in writing, either by mail or online. The agency must respond to the request within a specific time frame, typically 20 business days.
If the agency denies the request, the individual may appeal the decision to the agency’s Office of General Counsel or file a lawsuit in federal court.
In addition to requesting records through FOIA, individuals may also be able to obtain records through other means, such as the Privacy Act or the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
Overall, FOIA is an essential tool for promoting transparency and accountability in government and ensuring that individuals have access to the information they need to hold the government accountable.
Conducting searches online
Although you can still find all the documents you need by going to the archives of your local courthouse or library, most people now use Internet searches to find the public records they are looking for. Some of these are available through official state and county websites, while others are restricted in the kind of information they have available on digital systems. Luckily, many specialist commercial sites in existence have collected information on these public records from all over the US, making it easy for people to carry out widespread searches without leaving the comfort of their own homes. Not only are these search sites much more convenient, but they are also likely to be more comprehensive. Whereas the state and county sites only allow you to search for court cases, arrests or births, marriages, and deaths that took place within their borders, the specialist sites can allow you to case your net wider, even across the whole country. Of course, it is much easier to find the right public record if you have some idea where the person you are looking for was living at the time, but sometimes this knowledge isn’t available. These commercial sites are very user-friendly, requiring that you only input a few details, and they will then return a list of “hits” or records that match the information you have provided.
Of course, these kinds of searches don’t come for free, but many sites will only charge you if you want to see all the details of a criminal record, marriage, or divorce. If the list of results your data produces obviously has nothing to do with the person you are looking for, or there are no results at all, most sites will not charge you a cent. There are dozens of these sites to choose from, depending on what kind of public record you are looking for, so make sure you shop around and look for the website that will provide you with the most information for the least amount of money and effort.
Other ways to find records
Other sources of information can always supplement online searches and digging through local archives. Many people forget that local newspapers often feature family announcements of births, deaths, and marriages. In contrast, news stories mentioning the person you are looking for can help you track them down or help you find out what they have been doing in the past. Most of these are also available on searchable websites. As they are not subject to the same rules and restrictions as the official records, you can often find more information from these sources, especially if you are not a close relative of the person concerned. Besides searching online, most local newspapers also have archive copies in their offices or local libraries. Of course, this is only useful if you know where someone is or has been living; if you don’t have this kind of information, then your best option, certainly as a starting point, is to use what details you do have to conduct an online search with one of the many commercial websites available.
We will explore some ways to find public records in the United States.
State Public Records: In addition to federal public records, states have their own public records laws allowing individuals to request access to state-held records. These laws vary from state to state, so it is essential to research the specific laws in the state where the records are being sought. Many states have a central agency or office responsible for managing and responding to public records requests. In some cases, records may be available online through the state’s website, while a written request may be required in other cases.
Local Public Records: Public records may also be available locally through a city or county government agency. These records may include property records, court records, and police records, among others. To request local public records, it is usually necessary to contact the specific agency or office that holds the records. Some local governments may have an online portal for making public records requests, while others may require a written request to be submitted in person or by mail.
Online Resources: In addition to the above options, there are also many online resources that can be used to find public records. These resources may include government websites and commercial websites that offer access to public records for a fee. Some examples of online resources for finding public records include the National Archives, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the U.S. Court System’s PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system.
There are several ways to find public records in the United States. These include requesting records through federal, state, and local government agencies and online resources. By understanding the various options available, individuals can more easily access the public records they need.