The transparency provided by the free availability of public records is a cornerstone of the American judicial and business systems. These records allow for easy access to information people often need for business transactions, employment contracts, and many other areas of life. While criminal records, property taxes, old census information, and many other public records are freely available to anyone, other records remain restricted.
These restrictions are sometimes put in place to protect victims of crimes, private information such as health care records, or the financial records of individuals. Federal acts such as the Right to Financial Privacy Act, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Acts (H109-4709) provide citizens with a reasonable measure of privacy.
The rise in websites offering easy access to public records has helped these records become more easily accessible to individuals. However, it has also given rise to some illegitimate sources promising information that is not freely available to the public. It can be difficult and time-consuming to sort through federal and state legislation regarding various types of records to determine which ones are freely accessible and which ones are illegal to access.
Below is a list of restricted public records, along with who can access them, and under what circumstances.
Federally Restricted Records
While free access to some public records will vary from state to state, there are some federal restrictions on certain types of records. In many cases, it is a felony to gain access to these records without a court order or other authorization. These include:
- Phone Records. Be wary of any website that claims to provide phone records. Phone records (including cell phone records) can only legally be obtained by a court order. Obtaining an individual’s phone records without a court order is a felony under H109-4709.
- Medical Records. Under HIPAA, no individual or company can access an individual’s medical records without that person’s authorization. Medical records include:
- Conversations between medical professionals regarding a patient’s care.
- The patient’s payment and billing information for a given provider.
- Some Financial Records. Many financial records, such as property taxes, tax liens, and bankruptcies, are matters of public record and can be accessed by anyone. Others, such as private bank records, are available only with a court order. The following restricted financial records can only be obtained with the subject’s authorization or a court order, such as a subpoena or a warrant:
- Bank Records – An individual’s bank records cannot be publicly accessed or distributed by any party except by the person’s consent.
- Credit Reports – Credit reports can only be obtained by the subject or with their written authorization.
- Tax Returns – An individual’s tax returns are not available to the public, and cannot be distributed without the subject’s authorization.
Luckily, for many industries, there are records available online. CourthouseDirect.com is one resource to find the public records you can access quickly for your business or personal needs.
What records have you found hard to access?