Are New York Records Public?
Yes. New York public records refer to government-generated documents accessible to state residents and non-residents. The New York Freedom of Information Law is a series of laws that enables the public to access public records. As defined by the New York Freedom of Information Law, public records are any data stored, held, filed, created, or re-created by the state legislature or agency. For example, the following documents are classified as New York public records:
- Court records
- Arrest records
- Criminal records and criminal history records
- Public birth records
- Property records
- Public death records
- Public New York divorce records
Per New York public records laws, these records may exist as physical documents, such as photographs, maps, graphs, charters, manuals, pamphlets, folders, books, designs, opinions, reports, or letters. The public can also access New York public records in digital format, including video, audio, and electronic communication (email and SMS). Per the New York public records act, residents can initiate public data searches through a custodial government agency to obtain public records. (New York record custodians provide paid and free public data searches to the public in accordance with the law.) Residents can also submit public records act requests in writing to such agencies.
Note: documents generated outside the government but currently in a custodian's possession are subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law.
Who Can Access New York Public Records?
Per the New York Freedom of Information Law, state residents have the statutory right to access public records in New York. In addition, both residents and non-residents can inspect, make copies, and request corrections of public records maintained by custodial agencies. They can also conduct background checks via these agencies to find public data. However, government agencies may restrict access to certain documents under particular circumstances. For example, divorce records in New York are not available to the general public - only the record subjects and legal practitioners can request access to the documents.
Do I Need to State My Purpose and Use When Requesting Public Records in New York?
No. Generally, record seekers do not need a statement of purpose before obtaining New York public records. However, several New York courts require a statement of intent before granting access to public documents in pending litigation. In addition, custodians can deny requests initiated for fundraising or commercial purposes.
What is Exempted Under the New York Public Record Law?
The Freedom of Information Law prevents custodians from revealing certain public information to the public. Furthermore, the exemption may apply to portions or whole documents, and it is the responsibility of the custodian to redact or withhold these documents from public access (Section 87(2)). The FOIL exempts the following information from public access:
Confidential or Personal Information
The exemption covers documents that lead to an unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy. For instance, medical histories and personal information in government personnel records are exempt under the New York Freedom of Information Law. The law also protects the personal data of crime victims from public access. Furthermore, it prevents record custodians from revealing data protected under attorney-client privilege.
Sensitive Trade Information
Per Section 87(2)(d) of the Freedom of Information Law, local and state agencies must protect businesses' trade secrets and financial data from public view. For custodians to exempt trade secrets, business owners must specify which information is confidential. In some cases, New York courts may favor the public disclosure of a trade secret even when classified as confidential.
Information on Qualification and Promotional Materials
Exempted documents in this category include testing or investigative materials used for determining appointments or promotions in federal government service. The materials are restricted from public view if they will compromise the integrity of the appointment or promotion process. The exemption also includes documents detailing the criteria for promotion in the armed forces, which may reveal the identity of the document's creator.
Law Enforcement Investigative Files
Under the FOIL, materials compiled during law enforcement investigations, the disclosure of which will cause the following:
- Interfere with the court proceeding or law enforcement investigation;
- Causes harm to crime witnesses and victims;
- Deprive concerned persons of a right to a fair trial in the state's courts;
- Discloses criminal investigative procedures and strategies.
- Restricted criminal records and arrest records
Notes and Drafts
Notes and drafts created by a local or state agency are exempted under the New York Freedom of Information Law. Nevertheless, these materials may become accessible to the public if used in connection with public business.
Inter or Intra-agency Materials
The FOIL excludes agency materials or documents that might expose an agency's security protocol. Exempted documents also include inter or intra-agency materials, such as photographs, microphotographs, videotapes, or others specified under Section 87.
Generally, vital records (government records of births, deaths, divorce records, etc.) are not available under New York's Freedom of Information Law.
How Do I Find Public Records in New York?
Custodial agencies must send copies of public records to interested and eligible persons within five business days after receiving a public records request. Although there is a uniform procedure on how to check for public records in New York, record seekers may follow these general steps:
Know the Basics of Requesting a Public Record in New York
To check for public records in New York, record seekers must identify the basics of requesting their preferred document. For instance, record seekers must submit accurate, not vague, descriptions before accessing public records. Custodial agencies may reject vague or obscure requests for public documents. Here's an example: to obtain a New York criminal court record, record seekers must provide the record subject's name in the exact order it appears in the record.
Also, requesters must identify if a certified or non-certified copy of a public document will serve the intended purpose and if a record is indeed available under the state's public records law. For example, New York vital records cannot be accessed by the public, only specific parties.
Contact the Custodian Holding the Record
Record seekers must contact the New York department or agency responsible for holding or issuing the record. Next, they must find out the agency's method of providing public documents - some agencies maintain online or offline access, while some maintain both types of access.
Create and Send a Request
Some custodians enable requesters to send requests online, by mail, or in person. Most custodians provide a downloadable request form for filling out the necessary details. In addition, record seekers may use a generalized Freedom of Information Law request form (see example form for New York City) to apply to various custodian bodies in New York. In contrast, record seekers may use a written request to obtain New York public records. Note that a written request form must contain the following essential data:
- The requester's full name;
- The record subject's full name (plus aliases);
- The record subject's date of birth;
- Purpose of the request;
- Date range when the record was documented;
- The case number (this applies to court records);
- Additional information to assist with the search;
- Preferred mode of delivery.
After filling out the form, record seekers may send it by mail, email, in person, or via the custodian's online platform. Most custodians have their contact details in the "Contact Us" section of their webpage. In the absence of a "Contact Us" page, record seekers may forward all Freedom of information requests to the FOIL officer at the following address:
NYC Commission on Human Rights
22 Reade Street
New York, NY 10007.
Fax: (646) 500-7159
Review and Submit the Public Record
Some public records are not free, and custodians may charge specific fees in line with the New York FOIL. These charges generally cover the cost of printing copies of public documents. Moreover, payment options for obtaining a public record in New York include debit or credit cards, cash payments at the agency's physical address, money orders, and cashier checks. Record seekers will obtain a written response within five business days of submitting a public records request to a custodian.
Using Third-Party Sites to Find Public Records in New York
Public city 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 will need to 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.
Public records can also be accessed from third-party websites. These third-party public records aggregate websites offer search services that are non-geographically limited, making the search result expansive and typically straightforward. However, users will need to provide enough information to assist with the search, such as:
- The name of the subject involved in the record as long as the subject is not a juvenile
- The last known or location of the record subject
Third-party public records search websites are not government-sponsored services. Therefore, the availability and accuracy of results can vary.
How Much Do Public Records Cost in New York?
Most custodians may charge for providing copies of public records in New York. Generally, it costs $0.25 per page to copy public records (Section 87(1)(b)(iii)) of the New York FOIL). Note that custodians may charge additional fees for certified and notarized copies of public documents. Also, postage or mailing fees alongside fees for online payments are included when requesting public records.
How Do I Look Up Public Records for Free in New York
Interested public members can look up New York public records for free via the following methods:
Requesting to View Public Records
A personal inspection is an option for those asking, "where can I conduct free public records searches in New York?". Some custodians, such as law enforcement agencies and county clerks, allow interested and eligible persons to view public records during business hours. Moreover, some agencies have kiosks or computer terminals where record seekers can view public documents. However, copying or downloading the document might incur some charges.
Requesting for Online Copies
New York government departments or agencies also maintain online repositories of public documents. Therefore, interested persons may access New York public records, such as sex offenders' lists and inmate records. For example, the New York Department of Corrections maintains an online database for all incarcerated and former inmates in the state. Visitors to the online platform can search for inmates using the inmate's first and last name, NYSID, or DIN (Department ID) number.
Furthermore, public members can access sex offenders' information for free via the New York Sex Offender Registry. The Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) is responsible for maintaining and providing free access to its statewide sex offender registry. The online platform only features data on level 2 (medium-risk) and level 3 (high risk) sex offenders, whereas level sex offenders are not listed on the registry. Through the search offender registry, record seekers can search for sex offenders by name or location.
Also, the New York Department of Finance, via the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS), maintains an online database containing all property information in the state. In addition, the online platform enables record seekers to search and obtain tax records. To search and access property records on the ACRIS, record seekers must search using the following options:
- Parcel identifier
- Property owner's name;
- City File Register Number/Document ID;
- Reel and Page;
- Document Type;
- Federal Lien File Number.
What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?
Record seekers whose public data searches were denied can reverse the denial in the following ways:
Record seekers may seek an explanation from a custodian on the denial. Provided the request record is not exempt under the FOIL, custodians must cede the seeker's request. The FOIL enables local and state government agencies to release exempt documents if there is a significant public interest in the case.
Likewise, record seekers may write an appeal to the custodian body for a partial release of the document. Thus, the custodian may heavily redact or remove portions of the documents to protect confidential data.
As an alternative option, record seekers may file a case against the custodian withholding the required document. Per Section 89(4)(c) of the FOIL, the court may refund the record seeker's litigation and counsel fees, provided the custodian has no substantial legal reason for withholding the public record. In addition, the court may refund record seekers if the custodian fails to respond to a request or appeal within the set timeframe.
How to Remove Names From Public Records Search
Individuals and entities can seek to remove their names from public records search via a court order or by enforcing state statutes. However, record bearers must prove the record is exempt from access under the state's public records act.
Note that public records may remain publicly accessible if the document is crucial to the public's safety and interests. For example, state public records on high-risk sex offenders remain accessible for life. Also, deleting a public record is mainly dependent on the type of record and its retention period. For instance, bankruptcy records remain publicly searchable for a set timeframe.
Sealing a Record
According to the N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 160.59(2)(a), persons with two convictions, of which one is a felony, can seal their records for ten years. However, this statute does not include class A offenders, violent offenders, and sex offenders. In addition, offenders with more than two convictions are ineligible to seal their records.
In a record-sealing situation, multiple convictions for crimes committed simultaneously are regarded as a single conviction.
To seal a record, applicants must apply to the court where the most severe conviction occurred. N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 160.59(2)(a). Alongside other requirements to seal a record, applicants must include a sworn statement stating why the court must seal the record. On the other hand, the court will also consider the following factors before granting the request:
- The circumstance of the offense for which the offender is seeking relief
- Statement from the crime victims;
- The impact sealing the applicant's records has on public safety;
- The length of time from the applicant's last conviction.
What is the Best Public Record Search Database?
The best public record search database to use mainly depends on the type of record. In New York, local and state government agencies often host the best public record databases in accordance with the state's public records act.
For instance, the Division of Criminal Justice Services maintains an extensive and up-to-date registry of sex offenders living in the state. The New York City Department of Corrections maintains a public database for all inmates within the region. Likewise, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office provides public access to inmates incarcerated in correctional facilities. Record seekers can also contact the sheriff's office at (585) 753-4300 for inmate information.
How Long Does It Take to Obtain a New York Public Record?
Responses to public records act requests in New York may take a few minutes to five days. Under the FOIL, a state or local agency must respond to such requests within five days and provide the requested document within 20 days. Nevertheless, record seekers must meet eligibility requirements to access public information maintained by a custodian within a short timeframe.
Is Public Data Search Safe?
Yes. Executing public data searches to find New York government records typically carries no risks. According to New York's public records act, anybody can obtain public records from government agencies (like a law enforcement agency) using paid/free public data search services or by direct request to an agency.
However, individuals must note the type of personal information they submit while retrieving public records, as it is possible for third parties to collect such information. Reputable public data search services do not ask for a person's private information to provide access to a public record. In many cases, all one needs to retrieve a New York public record is the subject's information (e.g., name, date of birth) or information specific to the record (e.g., a case number).