Instant Accessto State, County and Municipal Public Records
Staterecords.org provides access to CRIMINAL, PUBLIC, and VITAL RECORDS (arrest records, warrants, felonies, misdemeanors, sexual offenses, mugshots, criminal driving violations, convictions, jail records, legal judgments, and more) aggregated from a variety of sources, such as county sheriff's offices, police departments, courthouses, incarceration facilities, and municipal, county and other public and private sources.
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Are California Records Public?
A large majority of government-generated records fall under the umbrella of public records. The California Public Records Act (CPRA) broadly defines public records to include any non-confidential information generated, owned, stored, or used by any local or state agency during the conduct of public business. Some examples of California public records may include:
- Public court records
- Public criminal records
- Public arrest records
- Public bankruptcy records
- Public birth records
- Public California death records
- Public inmate records
- Public sex offender information
- Public property records
- Public California divorce records
Alongside typed documents, public records may also exist as photographs, photocopies, or handwritten notes. Records may include letters, pictures, words, symbols, or sounds. They may be stored as physical files, saved as a digital recording, or transmitted by fax or electronic mail. The California Public Record Act preserves access to almost all public records, ranging from social media content and interactions by a government agency to inmate locations. Consequently, California residents can make copies of open records and gain public access to free court records by contacting the record custodian.
Note: Public records do not include materials that are the personal property of the record custodian. For instance, the private emails of a court clerk do not constitute a public record. In most cases, the CPRA also does not cover preliminary computations, notes, and drafts.
Who Can Access California Public Records?
The California Public Records Act specifies that “every person has a right” to obtain public records—regardless of their state of residence (Cal Govt Code § 6253). Requesters have the fundamental right to access, inspect or make copies of any non-confidential information maintained by state and local government agencies (Cal Govt. Code § 6250). This includes public record requests from firms, partnerships, corporations, and limited liability companies. Nevertheless, California law or court order may restrict access to some records. For instance, the state’s penal code forbids sex offenders from accessing information from the public sex offender website.
Do I Need to State My Purpose and Use When Requesting Public Records in California?
A statement of purpose is not required to obtain most public records in California. California law allows anyone to get copies of a document or public record by simply submitting a request to the custodian. However, record seekers who wish to obtain arrest records must provide a reason. Individuals who want to get arrest records that contain the name and address of persons arrested by a law enforcement agency must declare that the request is being made for political, governmental, journalistic, scholarly, or investigation purposes.
What is Exempted Under the California Public Records Act?
The CPRA permits record custodians to prevent the disclosure of a record if it contains information protected under law. Government agencies may opt to either withhold parts of the record by redacting the sensitive information; or to withhold the entire record if a full disclosure proves impossible (Cal Govt Code §6253, subd. (a)). The CPRA allows for multiple discretionary exemptions (Cal. Govt Code § 6254), some of which include:
- Confidential or Privilege information: Classified, confidential or privileged information are exempt from public disclosure. The CPRA limits the disclosure of any record (Cal Code §6254, subd. (k)) protected by state or federal laws. For instance, record custodians may not release information protected by attorney-client privilege or documents that may reveal confidential trade secrets.
- Law Enforcement Investigative Files: Not all law enforcement records are open to the public. California state law (Cal. Govt Code §6254, subd. (f)) allows members of the public to obtain copies of law enforcement files, with the exception of records that contain intelligence records, ongoing investigatory files, details of security procedures, and records of complaint
- Personal Information: Record custodians may withhold records if it is found to contain any personal information that would constitute “a clear invasion of personal privacy.” The California Public Records Act allows for the exemption of medical, personal, or similar files that contain personal details. However, this exemption is conditional. Personal information may still be released if the custodian decides that the public’s right to disclosure outweighs the subject’s privacy interest. (Cal Code §6254, subd. (c)).
- Personal Financial Data: California’s public records act exempts financial data submitted by citizens, such as bank account numbers or taxpayer details. Such information may not be accessible using a public records request.
- Notes and Drafts: California’s public record act protects the public disclosure of “preliminary” notes, memos, or drafts created by a government agency—as long as its exclusion outweighs the public interest in disclosure. That said, drafts and notes might become public records when used in connection with public business.
- Litigation Documents (for pending cases): California statutes allow for the exemption of litigation documents for ongoing court cases. The law specifies that government agencies may withhold records until the claim is settled or fully adjudicated. Once the case is complete, interested parties may access any litigation document not protected by the attorney-client privilege.
Note: Record custodians may still deny public access to a California public record even if the information does not fall under any of the exemptions defined by the CPRA. California laws permit custodians to decide on releasing a record on a case-by-case basis using a “balancing test.” Government agencies may withhold a record if the public interest served by restricting access to the record outweighs the interest of others served by its release.
How Do I Find Public Records in California?
In compliance with the CPRA, record custodians and agencies must provide prompt access to a record upon receiving a public records request. For most cases, residents can obtain copies of a record by following several quick steps.
1. Decide on the type of information you wish to request
To submit a public record request in California, record seekers must first identify the type of information required. Is it a single-page document or records containing hundreds of pages? It’s also important to consider the period covered by the search. California statutes state record keepers may honor any request that “reasonably describes an identifiable record or records” (Cal. Gov’t Code § 6253(b)). The law provides that record custodians can rightly deny any public record request that is “overly broad” or “overly vague.” Record seekers can prevent this by providing enough information to assist with searching and retrieving the sought record, such as a case number (for court records) or the parties' names.
2. Contact the Agency Holding the Record
Different agencies manage specific records. For instance, the county sheriff’s department may process requests for inmate records, while superior courts maintain files on divorce records. Record seekers will need to identify and contact the proper agency in charge of maintaining the record as well as the department that deals with public coordination and communication.
3. Create a Written Request
Although it’s possible to obtain copies of a record without a written request, most departments agencies recommend that record seekers make their request in writing. Some departments even provide a public request form to ease the process. A written request creates a paper trail and reduces the risk of confusion. Some of the information that should be included in a public request form include:
- A clear description of the record
- The type of record
- The full name of the requester
- The requester’s contact details
- A date range for the request
- Any other information that may assist the search
- The preferred method for delivery
4. Review and Submit Request
After verifying the information, requesters can proceed to submit their requests using different mediums. Requesters may opt to send their request to an official agency email address or fax the request to an official number. Some agencies provide an online records request page, while others maintain a public desk where users can physically submit a request. California residents may also be able to request and obtain records via mail—although this method typically takes the longest. Some records may be available at no cost. Others might require a fee. Custodians typically charge a small fee for photocopying or printing copies of a record for seekers—anywhere ranging from $0.10 to $0.20. Some agencies may also charge a fee for searches that require data extraction.
Using Third-Party Sites
Some public records may also be accessible from third-party websites. These non-government platforms come with intuitive tools that allow for expansive searches. Record seekers may either opt to use these tools to search for a specific record or multiple records. However, users must typically provide enough information to assist with the search such as:
- The name of the subject involved in the record (subject must be older than 18 or not juvenile)
- The address of the requestor
- A case number or file number (if known)
- The location of the document or person involved
- The last known or current address of the registrant
Third-party sites are not sponsored by government agencies. Because of this, record availability and results may vary.
How Much Do Public Records Cost in California?
Although the CPRA grants free access to records, it also permits record custodians to charge a "statutory fee" to cover the “direct costs of duplication” if applicable.” (Cal Govt Code § 6253). Most government agencies typically require that requesters first pay the fee before providing copies of the record. The public is more likely to pay a fee if the request is for physical copies of a record. California state laws also permit agencies to charge a fee for copies, with no restrictions on the number of copies or price per page.
How Do I Look Up Public Records for Free in California?
Finding free public records in California will depend on the type of record and the agency in charge of the document. One option for obtaining free public records in California is to request a physical inspection. Some government agencies, such as police departments and California courthouses, maintain lobbies and physical terminals where the public can inspect a record during regular business hours.
Another option is to request electronic copies instead of physical files. Residents may also be able to find free public records online. For instance, some counties maintain a free online inmate locator tool that the public can use to search for inmate information. California also maintains a public search offender website that provides free information on the status of medium- and high-risk sex offenders. It contains data extracted from the California Sex and Arson Registry. Visitors can search for sex offenders using a first and last name. Users can also expand searches to reveal offenders within a specific map zone, using a street number, street name, zip code, or radius.
What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?
Record seekers have multiple options for reversing a request denial. A key step is to identify the reason why the custodian refused the request. Members of the public can write to the office seeking an explanation for why the department turned down the request. Although the CPRA permits information officers to turn down public record requests for exempted documents, this decision is at the discretion of the public officer. As a result, some custodians may opt to waive exemptions for some records.
Record seekers can also consider writing an appeal letter or requesting the partial release of the record. Government agencies may release records with some portions redacted or removed to protect sensitive information.
If none of these provides a solution, California residents have the right to seek redress by petitioning a Superior court. The California public record Act allows anyone to “institute proceedings declarative relief” to enforce their rights to inspect or obtain a copy of any public record (Cal Gov Code § 6258). California courts can order the forceful disclosure of a public document if the court finds that the record custodians improperly prevented access to a record. However, if the court agrees with the public official’s decision, the court shall prevent the disclosure with an order.
Note: In cases where a court finds that the public officer was wrong to deny access to a record, the court typically instructs that the public agency cover the cost and fees of the requester.
How to Remove Names From Public Search Records?
Individuals who wish to remove their names from a public record search can only achieve this by enforcing a state statute or petitioning for a court order. Subjects will need to show that the public record falls under the list of exemptions permitted by the CPRA. California’s public record laws prohibit the release of specific information such as security procedures, documents of ongoing investigations, and information protected by client-attorney privilege.
Sealing a Record
Residents with arrest records may remove their names from a public search record with a court seal. California’s penal code (Cal PC 851.8(c)) provides an avenue for relief. Persons arrested for a crime but with no conviction may petition the court to dismiss the action after the expiration of a set period. Affected persons must submit a “petition to seal and destroy arrest records'' to the court. Once granted, the law enforcement agency seals the records for three years and then destroys the files after the waiting period.
Expunging a Record
California’s criminal code also provides the option to have a conviction expunged or judicially dismissed in cases where:
- The subject has successfully attended all court appearances and completed the probation term for the crime.
- The subject is either not serving time or on probation.
In rare instances, courts may decide to seal a record automatically. For example, in July 2021—following the passage of the state’s recreational marijuana bill—the California Department of Justice ordered the sealing of all records containing past marijuana convictions.
Not everyone is open to expungement. California state law explicitly rules out expungement for individuals convicted of severe sex crimes, such as lewd acts with a minor or statutory rape.
Note: Having a record expunged does not destroy the court file or completely erase all records or logs. However, it changes a prior conviction to reflect that the court granted the dismissal.
What is the Best Public Records Search Database?
Finding the best public records search database will depend on the type of record. Government agencies in California often provide online access to public records via a database. For instance, Los Angeles County maintains an open data platform, while the Superior Court of Los Angeles offers public access to court records via an Online Services database. Similarly, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department provides a Who's-In-Jail lookup tool that members of the public can use to search for inmate information.
How Long Does It Take to Obtain a California Public Record?
Requests for California public records may take anywhere from a few hours to up to 14 days, depending on the record. Although the CPRA does not define precisely how long agencies must take to produce a document, it specifies that government agencies must “promptly” provide documents upon request. It also stipulates that government agencies have to give a response within ten days of the request (or 14 days in unusual circumstances) starting from the next calendar day. Within this period, the record custodian will need to:
- Decide on whether the sought record will be released or blocked from public view.
- Send a response to the requester stating the decision
- Provide a reason for the decision
When positive, responses are usually accompanied by an estimated cost for providing the record. The length of time required to process a request varies on different factors, such as where and when a resident made the request. Generally, same-day requests are typically processed for in-person applications, while mail applications may take a few days or more than a week. Other factors that may increase the length of time it takes to process a record include the:
- The Complexity of the record. Some records may require the compilation or extraction of data using a computer program.
- The age of the record. Older records housed in off-site archives may take longer to find than records stored in-house.
- The scope and volume of records being sought. Some documents may require external consultation because the information is managed and spread across multiple government agencies.