How to Access Public Records Information

Anyone can access public records information available through the federal Freedom of Information Act , or FOIA, and through state and local government records.

Instructions

  • Step 1: Know what makes a record public Know what makes a record public. While most federal agency records are subject to the FOIA, state agencies are subject to state public record laws.
  • TIP: Certain public records can have privacy restrictions. For example, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects privacy of medical records.
  • Step 2: Do your homework before starting a search Do your homework before starting a search. For example, know the exact name of a person, property, or the government agency where a record might be found.
  • TIP: Types of accessible public records include civil and criminal court records, individual vital records, and property tax records.
  • Step 3: Know state info access regulations Know state information access regulations. Go to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) website for information access laws in each state.
  • Step 4: Check if a public record is accessible online Check if a public record is accessible online at a specific agency's website.
  • Step 5: Verbally request a public record Verbally request a public record by calling or visiting a local, state, or federal agency. Be polite and patient, and document visits or conversations.
  • Step 6: Write a public record request Write a public record request. Pay attention to the request format. The RCFP offers federal or state records request letter format generators.
  • Step 7: Consult an attorney if access is denied Consult an attorney if access is denied. Formally appeal or contact a state mediator or ombudsman. If mediation doesn't work, contact elected officials for help.
  • FACT: The FBI released hundreds of death threat files on Senator Edward Kennedy, including an alleged jailhouse plot by Sirhan Sirhan -- the man who was convicted of killing Kennedy's brother Robert F. Kennedy.

You Will Need

  • A written request letter
  • An attorney consultation

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