Obtaining public records is a beneficial method of investigating information filed at city, county, state or federal government agencies concerning individuals or business entities. Commonly, these public records are available free of charge if the individual or business entity doing the investigation knows what to look for, who to talk to, and how to retrieve the information. The Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C.A. § 552 et seq.) is a federal law stating all information is to be made available to the public within 10 days of filing with the exception of specific exemptions where foreign policy, national defense, and harm to individuals, or government agencies or agents may be foreseen.
While the exemptions may by all appearances, seem to work in favor of withholding information, the exemptions are intently interpreted to protect the right of the people to know information filed or kept within governmental agencies at all levels. With the knowledge available through the use of free public records, the public is allowed the freedom to hold the government, governmental agents and agencies accountable for actions which may otherwise go unchecked.
Unfortunately, as the internet gained popularity, the ability to view records was hindered due to privacy issues, agency technology and other reasons. However, the Computer Security Act of 1987 (Act of Jan. 8, 1988, Pub. L. No. 100-235, 101 Stat. 1724 ) denies agencies and/or agents the legality of withholding computerized records, commonly accessible through the Freedom of Information Act, to the public.
Individuals and business entities may benefit from the information obtained through a free public records search. Did you know you can obtain information on missing persons, trademarks, death and incarceration records? In addition, many people are unaware that unclaimed property is considered a matter of public record. Probate records, hunting/fishing licenses issued, sales tax permits and UCC filings are more examples of what can be revealed when utilizing a free public records search.
There are many considerations when an individual or business entity decides to search through free public records. These are a few of the questions to consider when starting an investigative search:
- What is the purpose of the records search?
Beginning a free public records search is not an easy task. Simply knowing a criminal background check is to be preformed is a vague description of the purpose. Do you want felony records, or misdemeanor records? Do you want both felony and misdemeanor records? Should the search be county, state or federal?
- Who is to be investigated?
Obviously, knowing the name of the intended subject of the proposed investigation is important. However, not all names are created equal. The name “Henry E. Jones” may be a name you are familiar with, and you probably only know one “Henry E. Jones”, but knowing what the “E” stands for will greatly improve the quality of the results. The more common the name combination, the more necessity there is for a full name.
- What information is expected from the search?
There is a lot of information available – probably more information than any one person would realistically want to know. When searching for a specific name, what is the procedure if the name matches but the date of birth does not? What if the date of birth matches, but the middle name does not? Also, many clerks or agents may charge per copy. If you are not specific, you may find you are paying enormous fees for incorrect data.
- How soon do you need the information?
Having a realistic timeframe for information requested is an essential part of searching for public records. In most cases, the further away the deadline, the better the possibility of more thorough results. Also, asking about how long it will take from the time the record is requested to the time the record is delivered can negate misunderstandings and relieve unnecessary tensions. In some situations, expediting the search is possible for an additional fee.
- Where exactly should the search start and end?
Asking for records from a specific period is easier than getting records with an ambiguous timeframe. Of course, some public record searches are made easier with specific dates while others are not. If you are looking for unclaimed properties, having a specific time frame may negate some of the false leads reducing time and money spent on superfluous searches.It’s important to note how often a specific agency actually gets new information. There can be considerable time lapse when a local agency files a report and when the state agency applies the new information. Be sure to know how often the database is updated.
- How should the report be delivered?
Whether you are doing a search via the internet or mailing in a written request for public records, knowing the method of delivery for the information is important. The methods will vary in price and time. If you are not pleased with how the report will be delivered, ask if there are other options. What are the fees for each form of delivery?
Remember when retrieving any information from public records, the legislation regulating what is reported and where, varies from locality to locality. With more than 6,000 counties across the United States alone, not all information received will be complete or accurate. Often, finding accurate, detailed information is greatly increased by hiring a professional to aid in the search.
Searching free public records may prove useful for many purposes both personal and professionally. However, searching alone can be a scary process filled with false information often costing a lot of needlessly spent money and time. Many individuals follow in the steps of professional people and businesses by hiring a private investigator, record retriever, attorney, specialized screening firm or gateway company. No matter how you decide to continue with your public record searches in the future, knowing how to get the information you need will aid in asking the right questions, saving both time and money while insuring more accurate results.