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Are Pennsylvania Records Public?

Most records created and maintained by government entities and agencies are classified as public records. The Pennsylvania Right to Know Law (RTKL) defines public records as information (regardless of physical form or attributes) that records any transaction or activity of government agencies. These records include any information created, received, retained, and used by the agency while conducting any official business or activity. Public records in Pennsylvania include the following:

  • Court records
  • Arrest records
  • Bankruptcy records
  • Sex offender information
  • Marriage records
  • Divorce records
  • Inmate records
  • Property records

The Pennsylvania Right to Know Law permits public access to almost all public records ranging from government correspondence to court records and marriage records. This means that by contacting the appropriate record custodian, a Pennsylvania resident may access, view, and copy public records no matter how they are stored. However, the personal property of record custodians and government employees does not come under public records. For example, the personal phone records or emails of a county clerk are not considered public records.

Pennsylvania public records come in many forms, including written and typed documents, photocopies, pictures, maps, audio and video files. They may also be stored as physical paper files or digitized files on a computer disc or hard drive. They can be transmitted physically as written letters or electronically as computer files, emails, and faxes.

Who Can Access Pennsylvania Public Records?

The Pennsylvania Right to Know Laws states that any legal resident of the United States may request a public record (section 102). The requester has the right to access, view, and copy all non-confidential records maintained by any government, commonwealth, judicial, and legislative bodies. This includes records possessed by other entities the agencies did business with or contracted to perform tasks(Section 506 (d)(1)).

However, some records may be exempt or classified by statute or sealed by a court or judicial order or decree. For example, personal records of government agents and employees like social security and financial records are not considered public records and are exempt from public view (section 708(b)(6)). A record may also be exempted if it is made so under a separate other Federal or State regulation or the law.

Do I Need to State My Purpose and Use When Requesting Public Records in Pennsylvania?

A requester attempting to access records in Pennsylvania does not need to state the purpose or motive of the record request. The Right to Know Law allows anyone to obtain records by simply submitting a request to the appropriate records custodian.

What is Exempted Under the Pennsylvania Public Records Act?

The Pennsylvania Right to Know Law permits records custodians to restrict or refuse access to records that are exempt from public view under the law. Government agencies (or custodians) may also redact parts of the record or withdraw access to the whole record if the information within is exempt. The Right to Know Law (Section 708(b)) has numerous exemptions to cover various situations and types of information. These include the following:

  • Medical records: The Right to Know Law exempts the medical records of an individual, including consultations, evaluations, prescriptions, test results, diagnosis, and treatments. This extends to all medical records, including medical, psychiatric or physiological, or disability history and other related information that could identify an individual (Section 708(b)(5)).
  • Personal Identification Information: Information that may be used to identify or track an individual is exempt according to (Section 708b(6)(i)(A)). This exemption covers all personal identification numbers, including social security, driver’s license, personal phone numbers, and personal bank account numbers and passwords.
  • Records that document the pre-decisional deliberations of a government entity, its members, or officials are exempt from the public view (Section 708b(10)(i)). These deliberations may relate to the budget recommendations and legislative proposals, amendments, or policies.
  • Any record that will reveal trade secrets or any other confidential, proprietary information is exempt from public view. (Section 708(11))
  • Academic Records: Exam questions, answers, scoring keys, and academic transcripts are all exempted under the Right to Know Law (Section 708b(15)). This exemption covers examination materials used for primary, secondary, and higher education institutions and any materials used for occupational licensing exams.
  • Records of any agency relating to a criminal investigation (Section 708b(16)) or a non-criminal investigation (Section 708b(17)) are exempt from public view. This includes investigative reports, notes, correspondence, and materials and consists of any information that may endanger a life or invade an individual's privacy.
  • All notes and working materials that are personal belongings of a government employee or public official are exempt from right-to-know laws (Section 708b(9)). This includes any documents and materials which were created for the government employee or official’s personal use and serves no official purpose.

Where Can I Access Public Criminal Court Records in Pennsylvania?

Criminal court records in Pennsylvania can be obtained from the clerks of the court where the case was heard. These records may be requested in person and by mail from the respective clerks of court. Most of the county courthouses possess self-service public terminals where a requester may access criminal court case information online. After the required record is located on the terminal, copies of the record can then be requested from the court clerks. The Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System(UJS) operates the UJS web portal where requesters may access criminal court case information across levels of court for free.

How Do I Find Public Records in Pennsylvania?

Under the statutes on the RTKL, record keepers and custodians must provide access to a public record on receiving a valid and complete record request. A requester may acquire copies of a required public record by making a request using a few simple steps given by the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records(OOR).

  • Determine the type of information you require and the agency in charge

The first step is to simply determine what record you require and the custodial agency. For example, a court record would likely be at the court where the case was heard and in possession of the clerk of the court. Records on information about Pennsylvania's state park system would be in possession of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Figuring out the right agency and custodian of the record will prevent misdirected requests and save you a lot of time and effort. Since misdirected requests are so common the OOR has a table of misdirected requests to help requesters identify the right agencies when searching for a record.

  • Contact the custodian

Every government entity is required by the right to know laws to appoint a record custodian or Agency Open Records Officer (AORO) to attend to requests. This official may have a different title in various government agencies but this is who the request should be addressed to. Usually, the best place to find the contact details of these officials is on the government agency’s website. In some cases, the contact details can not be found on the website, or the agency does not operate a website. For cases like these, the Pennsylvania office of open records maintains an open records officers database that can be used to search for the appropriate one. If contact details for a records officer can not be located, it is advisable to simply address a written request to the “open records officer.” The request can then be mailed to the agency’s main address.

  • Composing and Submitting the Request

The request itself can be in various forms, where possible it is better to use the request form provided by the agency being requested from. It is also possible to make requests using the Office of Open Records standard RTK request form which is available in PDF and Microsoft Word. Most record requests can be filed or submitted in several ways:

  • Submitting the completed form or written request in person at the agency’s office
  • Mailing the request to the agency office using US mail or courier service.
  • The completed form can be faxed to the agency fax number
  • Requests can also be sent electronically to the agency’s email address.

The request must always be addressed to the open records office no matter which method you use to file it. When making a request there is some important information that must always be included:

  • A clear and concise description of the record being requested so that it can be quickly located and determined if it is a public record.
  • Full name and address of the requester
  • If any copies are required
  • Contact details where the requester can be reached
  • A date range for the record
  • A preferred method of delivery

Filing the request will always be free but fees may likely be charged for viewing or copying the record. Also, it is advisable to keep a copy of your request as a copy will be needed if the request is denied and the requester decides to appeal the decision.

Some public records may also be accessible from third-party websites. These websites are not limited by geographic location and come with expansive search tools. Record seekers can use these sites to start a search for a specific record or multiple records. To use a search engine on a third-party or government website, interested parties usually must provide:

  • The name of the person involved in the record, unless said person is a juvenile
  • The location or assumed location of the document or person involved

Third-party sites are independent of government sources and are not sponsored by these government agencies. Because of this, record availability on third-party websites may vary.

How Much Do Public Records Cost in Pennsylvania?

The Right to Know law allows free access to open records but permits agencies to charge fees for duplication, postage, and official certification (Section 1307(a)(b)). The prices may be set by the OOR or the agency but must be comparable to similar services provided by local business entities (Section 1307(b)(2)(3)). The OOR provides a fee schedule as a guide to how much the commonwealth and local agencies may charge for records and services. Government agencies will not process a copy request over $100 until they receive payment and there is no limit to how many copies can be ordered.

How Do I Lookup Public Records for Free in Pennsylvania?

The possibility of locating free public records in Pennsylvania will depend on the record and agency in the custody of it. For example, many Pennsylvania courthouses maintain computer terminals on the premises where requesters may search court records for free. Using this method or requesting to physically inspect records in person is a good way to view records for free. Most court records can also be viewed online using the search tools on the Pennsylvania judiciary website. Pennsylvania also operates a sex offender registry and a state inmate locator that are good places to view records for free. Viewing records online and physically is usually free while requesting photocopies may incur both copying and postage fees. Requesters can also avoid these fees by asking for electronic versions to be delivered via email instead.

What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?

When a citizen makes a public record request the government agency/custodian must accept or deny the request within 5 working days of receiving it. If it is denied, an explanation for the denial must be provided to the requester in writing (Section 903). The requester is allowed to appeal the decision to deny access to the records with any appointed appeals officer (Section 503) or the Office of Open Records (OOR). Any appeals must be made within 15 days of receiving notice of the denial(Section 1101). The appeal can be filed in writing or using the online appeal form provided by the OOR. Written appeals can be submitted in-person or by mail to the OOR at:

Office of Open Records
333 Market Street, 16th Floor
Harrisburg, PA 17101-2234

The appeals can also be submitted by fax at (717) 425-5343 and email to the OOR. When the OOR receives an appeal it is assigned, a docket number and an appeals officer. The requester and the agency are both sent letters containing the details of the appeals case. The appeals officer’s final and binding determination will be made within 30 calendar days and mailed to both parties. If the agency is deemed to have denied the request in bad faith a civil penalty of up to $1500 may be imposed on it.

How to Remove Names From Public Search Records?

It is generally not possible to completely remove a name from a public record. However, in some cases, records may be expunged or sealed by a court. Depending on the type of record, the process to do this will differ. For example, the process to remove a name from a sex offender registry will be completely different from removing a name from a property deed. Pennsylvania has the expungement statutes Title 18, and Act 5, which focus on expunging criminal history information and sealing misdemeanors. Applications to remove criminal felonies and misdemeanors from a record can also be sent to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.

What is the Best Public Records Search Database?

Determining the best public records search database is based on the type of public record in consideration. The best public record database will usually be one that is operated by agency-appointed custodians. A lot of government agencies in Pennsylvania operate online databases where public records can easily be accessed. Philadelphia County, for example, operates an inmate locator search tool that allows requesters to access inmate information online. Allegheny County Department of Court records provides an online court records database where requesters can access criminal, civil and marriage records. Likewise, the Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds has a Public Search database where all records in their custody can be viewed online.

How Long Does It Take to Obtain a Pennsylvania Public Record?

On a case-by-case basis response times for an open record request may vary from a few hours to several weeks. According to Section 901 of the RTKL, the agency in custody must respond in no more than 5 business days upon receiving a valid records request. This time is counted from the day the request was received by the open records officer. The custodian or records officer will use this time to make a good faith effort to do the following:

  • Determine if the record requested is a public record, legislative record, or financial record
  • Check whether the agency has possession, custody, or control of the identified record
  • Respond as promptly as possible under the circumstances existing at the time of the request

All applicable fees must be paid before the request may be granted. If an agency fails to send a response within the 5 business days given time the request is deemed as failed. The RTKL in Section 902 also provides for a response time extension under certain situations such as:

  • The records require redactions under the RTKL Section 706.
  • The time cannot be met due to bonafide and specified staffing limitations
  • The records must be retrieved from a remote location
  • A legal review is required to determine if the record is subject to request and access under the RTKL.
  • The request has neglected to pay applicable fees for processing the record

If one of the situations cited in Section 902 arises, the records officer must inform the requester via a written notice detailing the situation. The notice will include a statement informing the requester that the request is being reviewed, it will explain the reason for the view. The notice will also provide a reasonable date when the request is expected to be ready and any applicable fees. The extension time should be no more than 30 days after the 5 business days allowed for initially. Unless the requester agrees to the extension in writing the request will be deemed to have failed. If the requester agrees in writing then the request may be deemed as failed if the agency still does not provide a response after the 30-day extension.