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A Guide to Public Records Laws: Sources and Exceptions

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in LawNovember 20, 2020

Public records laws are in place to ensure that the public has access to all forms of government and how they operate. However, these laws vary quite a bit and can be confusing, especially if you are trying to locate public records.

What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?

The federal government enacted a law in 1967 called the Freedom of Information Act. It protects citizens’ rights to request access to records from any federal government agency. However, there are also nine exemptions to the rule. When requesting public records from a government agency, regardless of the purpose, you will need to know what those exemptions are. 

Directly from, here are the nine exceptions.

  • #1 - Protects information that is properly classified under criteria established by an Executive Order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.
  • #2 - Protects information related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
  • #3 - Protects information specifically exempted from disclosure by another statute, if that statute either: (1) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue; or (2) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld. 
  • #4 - Protects trade secrets and commercial or financial information that is obtained from outside the government and that is privileged or confidential.
  • #5 - Protects certain records exchanged within or between agencies that are normally privileged in the civil discovery context, such as records protected by the deliberative process privilege (provided the records are less than 25 years old), attorney work-product privilege, or attorney client privilege.
  • #6 - Protects information about individuals in personnel and medical files and similar files when the disclosure of that information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
  • #7 - Protects records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information:
  • * (A) could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings;
  • * (B) would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication;
  • * (C) could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy;
  • * (D) could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source, including a state, local, or foreign agency or authority or any private institution which furnished information on a confidential basis. In the case of a record or information compiled by a criminal law enforcement authority in the course of a criminal investigation or by an agency conducting a lawful national security intelligence investigation, it also protects information furnished by the confidential source;
  • * (E) would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law;
  • * (F) could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.
  • #8 - Protects information contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of, an agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions.
  • #9 - Protects geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells.”

Who Oversees Public Records Law?

The U.S. Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice provides guidance to government agencies so they can comply easily with public records law. They are also responsible for encouraging all government agencies to comply and to do so openly. In an effort of transparency, agencies are expected to do their best to provide as much information as possible while also protecting citizens’ privacy and security. 

Obtaining Public Records from Government Sources

Most government agencies have a designated person who handles public records requests. They may have you fill out a form, and sometimes you have to pay a small fee for copies. 

Unfortunately, though, you may have to visit different offices to get all the public records you want. There is no central authority where you can visit one location and retrieve them all. In some cases, you might see them online but rarely will you find everything you want, provided easily from all forms of government.

Obtaining Public Records from Other Sources

Visiting dozens of government offices to retrieve paperwork is not the most efficient way. A better option is to use a third-party, public records search tool like InfoTracer to access millions of records at once about anyone. Using a single search, you can retrieve criminal records, arrests, warrants, court records, social media feeds, marriages, divorces, birth records, death records, address lookups, bankruptcy and asset searches, police records, VIN information, and more. 

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