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Types of Data Available through Public Records

Government agencies and court systems at every government level, including federal, state and local, maintain public records. Many of these government outlets are increasingly making these records available on the Internet. While some jurisdictions are just now starting to offer online availability of public records, many agencies and courts have been doing that for nearly two decades.

Typically, these government agencies offer electronic access to public records in two different ways. Some jurisdictions in the country simply post the public records on their websites. The records can be obtained for free or at a low cost. Other court systems and government agencies will sell the public records to companies that broker information or to commercial information compilers. Public records that are obtained in this manner are usually offered to the public on a fee basis.

With the ability to easily access public records, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain an individual’s privacy. Most states across the nation offer access to public records that include motor vehicle registration, property taxes, land titles, firearm permits, bankruptcy, court records, juror information, aircraft and boat registration and licenses, postal address records, records from law enforcement, fishing and hunting licenses, political contributions, wills and others.

Public Accessible Records

The following public records examples will often contain personal data that can be acquired through electronic access from a remote location. These include:

  • Business and professional licenses
  • Registered voter information – This data is restricted in many states
  • Motor vehicle records – This includes licensing, driver history and registration
  • Court files – These include judgments and tax liens, bankruptcy files, civil court information, cases, criminal arrests, warrants and conviction records
  • Property tax assessment records – This data usually includes the name of the property owner name, a property description and the property assessed value (determined for taxation). Some agencies also offer property blueprints

Records Not Accessible

Because public records are in fact public, in our open society, they must be available to citizens, according to the law. However, there are some basic exceptions for gaining public access to specific records held at the local, state or federal level from a variety of agencies and branches of government. These include:

  • National Security Records – All records with information related to US national security are classified. The list of records is extensive, but can include diplomatic strategy and/or military plans.
  • Income Tax Records – Any record that contains data that if were made accessible to the public might invade an individual’s privacy, when no laws have been broken, are usually exempt from public access. This includes income tax records, medical records or personnel files.
  • Unsolved Crime Records – All records pertaining to an unsolved crime are usually not accessible to the public, because the investigation process has not yet been completed.

There are many types of records that are not available through the Freedom of Information Act that often varies between states. Any of the records that are not covered by laws governing open information might not, may not or could not be available for public access. There are times when government departments and agencies strongly resist opening records to the public that might actually be legally accessible.

Archived Data

Data that is held in archives might or might not be available for access to the public. Typically, public records are maintained for a predetermined amount of time in their printed form. Some agencies convert the public record to microfilm, while others store the information electronically. Some data is archived at a physical store house, making it nearly impossible to access.

For the most part, access to public records and data that is in archives is extremely easy. It is usually maintained by the institution or agency that originally collected it.