What are Washington Public Records, and How are They Created?
The Public Records Act (Chapter 42.56 RCW) in Washington State allows citizens to review and obtain copies of government public records. According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, "Public records include documents in all formats, whether electronic or paper, that relate to government operations or conduct. All of Commerce's documents are considered public records, and are subject to public review, unless a law specifically exempts certain information from disclosure."
Many government agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, has a specific person who handles public records requests. When looking for records, you may need to contact them directly through email, by phone, or in person.
In Washington, many different types of agencies and offices create, store, maintain, and share public records. For example, hospitals may create birth certificates, then the courts or town offices file them to make them official. Later, a vital records department may add them to the state's repository. Law enforcement, the courts, local and state government offices, and others are all examples of where public records come from and where you can go to retrieve them.
"Public record" includes any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics. For the office of the secretary of the senate and the office of the chief clerk of the house of representatives, public records mean legislative records as defined in RCW 40.14.100 and also means the following: All budget and financial records; personnel leave, travel, and payroll records; records of legislative sessions; reports submitted to the legislature; and any other record designated a public record by any official action of the senate or the house of representatives."
Washington State's Secretary of State has a division called the Washington State Archives that preserves all historical public records for the state. They have various offices throughout the state you can visit to search and review collections. They also have an extensive array of documents online for easy access and searching. Along with vital records, they store historical documents, government records, tribal records, and more.
How to Access Washington Public Records?
The Washington State Department of Commerce has simple instructions on how to obtain public records. They provide an email address or mailing address to use when making a request. Their general instructions are:
- "Contact the government office you need to or this office to request public records.
- Include your name, phone number, email address, and a description of the records you are requesting.
- The request must be for a specific identifiable record or series of records. The more precisely you identify the record you seek, the more efficient and effective, we can be in locating and providing the appropriate documents.
- You can call them if you have trouble."
In some cases, you can visit the government agency in person to request records. The government agency has five business days to respond to your inquiry.
Different Types of Public Records in Washington
Washington Criminal Records
The Washington State Patrol has set up a helpful website for the public to request criminal records. You can use their system called WATCH (Washington Access to Criminal History) to search online and obtain results within minutes. You can also order a criminal history report by phone or in person. This is what they say about the "Criminal History Records, or background checks, consist of fingerprint-based records and disposition information submitted by law enforcement agencies and courts throughout Washington." You can also search Washington court records or the Washington State Department of Corrections to find criminal information on offenders.
Some common types of criminal records in Washington include (but are not limited to):
- Felony and Misdemeanor Records - some common misdemeanors in Washington are prostitution or patronizing a prostitute, indecent exposure, and shopping cart theft. Some popular felonies in Washington are murder, rape, assault, burglary, armed robbery, theft, and arson.
- WA Jail and Inmate Records - both jails and prisons keep inmate records, and those too are public records. The Washington Department of Corrections has an online search tool you can use to locate criminals and their records.
- Police Records - local police can provide copies of incident reports, police reports, sometimes mugshots, and even crime scene photos upon request.
Washington Court Records
Washington Court is the government agency in charge of Court records in Washington. They have an area on their website, that allows the general public to search court records. You may search by case or person. They update the court records every 24 hours at 3:00 p.m. However, if you need official copies, you must visit the courthouse in person to purchase them. The courts have the right to charge you a small fee for copies of court documents.
Some types of court records in Washington include:
- Civil Court Records - domestic relations cases such as divorces, marriages, paternity lawsuits, custody and child support cases, estates, conservatorships, wills, civil lawsuits, and small claims lawsuits.
- Criminal Court Records - criminal filings for misdemeanors, felonies, and other citations. These may include things like trial paperwork, sentencing, prison transfers, and evidence related to the court case.
- Financial Court Records - bankruptcies, liens, tax issues, company stock filings, and corporate financial reports.
- Other Court Records - such as bench warrants, arrest warrants, judgments, traffic tickets, and other traffic violations, worker's compensation cases, and name changes.
The court system in Washington consists of four levels starting with the Supreme Court. After that is the Court of Appeals, then the Superior Court, and finally Municipal and District Courts.
Washington Arrest Records
Anyone can find Washington arrest records pretty easily. First, the Washington State Patrol has set up a website where you can search for criminal records, including arrest data. After that, you have the option of searching court records for arrest records or contacting the Washington State Department of Corrections to find arrest details on convicted felons.
Some different types of arrests records in Washington are:
- Drug charges.
- Shopping cart theft.
- Misrepresenting the age of a minor.
- Sexual abuse.
- Booking details like fingerprints and mugshots.
- Arrest warrants granted by a judge.
- Bench warrants for not appearing in court.
- Crime scene photos.
- Witness statements.
- Property crimes and accompanying paperwork.
- Vehicle records if one was used during the crime.
Washington Vital Records
Washington State's Department of Health is the government agency in charge of all vital records for the state. They store all birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates, and you can easily request copies through the mail, in person, or online. This agency also handles adoption information and Apostilles.
Other Public Records in Washington
Along with criminal, court, arrest, and vital records, other types of public records you can find in the state of Washington include, but are not limited to:
- Government budgets and annual reports.
- Driving records (without personally identifiable information).
- Home addresses.
- Maps, books, and tapes.
- State health and wellness statistics.
- Air and water quality (pollution reports).
- Property records, real estate deals, and land deeds.
- Home phone numbers.
- Police and accident reports.
- Liens & tax issues.
- Company incorporation records.
- Library Research.
- Personnel records for state agencies.
- Permits, licenses, and certifications.
- Government employee salaries.
- * 911 time response logs.
- Grant applications.
- Contracts involving government agencies.
- Settlement agreements.
- Agency decisions.
- Name, title, and salary of public employees and officials.
What Information is Not Public Record in Washington?
Washington State has a list of things that are not public records. Some of them are:
- "(1) Personal information in any files maintained for students in public schools, patients or clients of public institutions or public health agencies, or welfare recipients;
- (i) For a child enrolled in licensed child care in any files maintained by the department of children, youth, and families;
- (ii) For a child enrolled in a public or nonprofit program serving or pertaining to children, adolescents, or students, including but not limited to early learning or child care services, parks and recreation programs, youth development programs, and after-school programs;
- (iii) For the family members or guardians of a child who is subject to the exemption under this subsection (2) if the family member or guardian has the same last name as the child or if the family member or guardian resides at the same address as the child and disclosure of the family member's or guardian's information would result in disclosure of the personal information exempted under (a)(i) and (ii) of this subsection; or
- (iv) For substitute caregivers who are licensed or approved to provide overnight care of children by the department of children, youth, and families.
- (b) Emergency contact information under this subsection (2) may be provided to appropriate authorities and medical personnel for the purpose of treating the individual during an emergency situation;
- (3) Personal information in files maintained for employees, appointees, or elected officials of any public agency to the extent that disclosure would violate their right to privacy;
- (4) Information required of any taxpayer in connection with the assessment or collection of any tax if the disclosure of the information to other persons would: (a) Be prohibited to such persons by RCW 84.08.210, 82.32.330, 84.40.020, 84.40.340, or any ordinance authorized under RCW 35.102.145; or (b) violate the taxpayer's right to privacy or result in an unfair competitive disadvantage to the taxpayer;
- (5) Credit card numbers, debit card numbers, electronic check numbers, card expiration dates, or bank or other financial information as defined in RCW 9.35.005 including social security numbers, except when disclosure is expressly required by or governed by other law;
- (6) Personal and financial information related to a small loan or any system of authorizing a small loan in RCW 31.45.093 ;
- (7)(a) Any record used to prove identity, age, residential address, social security number, or other personal information required to apply for a driver's license or identicard.
- (b) Information provided under RCW 46.20.111 indicates that an applicant declined to register with the selective service system.
- (c) Any record pertaining to a vehicle license plate, driver's license, or identicard issued under RCW 46.08.066 that, alone or in combination with any other records, may reveal the identity of an individual, or reveal that an individual is or was, performing undercover or covert law enforcement, confidential public health work, public assistance fraud, or child support investigative activity.
- (9) Voluntarily submitted information contained in a database that is part of or associated with enhanced 911 emergency communications systems, or information contained or used in emergency notification systems as provided under RCW 38.52.575 and 38.52.577 ;
- (10) Until the person reaches eighteen years of age, information, otherwise disclosable under chapter 29A.08 RCW, that relates to a future voter, except for the purpose of processing and delivering ballots;
- (11) All information submitted by a person to the state, either directly or through a state-licensed gambling establishment, Indian tribes, or tribal enterprises that own gambling operations or facilities with class III gaming compacts, as part of the self-exclusion program established in RCW 9.46.071 or 67.70.040 for people with a gambling problem or gambling disorder; and
- (12) Names, addresses, or other personal information of individuals who participated in the bump-fire stock buy-back program under RCW 43.43.920 ."