California Court Records
Are California Records Public?
Records maintained by the government are generally open to the public. Per the California Public Record Act (CPRA), anyone may obtain copies of any document or information maintained by a government agency if the requested record isn't exempted or protected by law. Public records are defined to include any "..writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public's business." Public records include all information used, retained, or maintained by all state and local government agencies. California records may be available in physical or electronic format, depending on the date they were created.
Who Can Access California Public Records?
Almost anyone can obtain public records if they meet the eligibility requirements. This includes individuals, legal professionals, journalists, businesses, researchers, organizations, and entities. However, access to some records, such as certified birth and death records, may be restricted to only authorized persons.
Government agencies are also permitted to restrict access to specific information if "the public interest served by nondisclosure of the record outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record." This means that a court clerk may sometimes deny access to a record if the custodian decides that the benefit of not disclosing it is greater than the benefit of releasing it.
Do I Need to State My Purpose and Use When Requesting Public Records in California?
Members of the public aren't required to state or justify the reason behind a public records request. Access to public records in California is a right granted by the CPRA without restrictions. In addition, requesting parties aren't required to use "any magic words " save a stated request to inspect or view the described records. However, the CPRA also asserts that submissions must be specific, focused, and clear enough for the agency to understand. This means any submitted request must not be overly broad and include enough description to assist with the search. Requesters must also specify if they intend to inspect a record or obtain document copies.
What Records are Public in California?
In California, multiple records are considered public and may be accessed by almost anyone. Some examples include birth records, bankruptcy records, death records, divorce records, and property records. Residents can also obtain records related to public government meetings and public sex offender information, public inmate records, and criminal records. However, although the CPRA grants broad access to public records, it generally prevents the disclosure of any record that contains sensitive or confidential information.
California Public Court Records
California courts maintain two types of court records: case records and judicial administrative records. Case records (or adjudicative records) contain information filed during lawsuits and cases. Some examples of case records include complaints, petitions, docket sheets, transcripts, and settlement agreements. In comparison, administrative records contain information related to the management and operation of California's Judicial system. These include financial records, court calendars, information on judicial appointments, and documents on internal court regulations.
California court records are mainly open to the public. California's public records access is governed by different state laws, including the California Public Records Act (CPRA), the Legislative Open Records Act, and the California Rule of Court. That said, although the permissions provided by the CPRA are far-reaching, they do not extend to judicial court records. Instead, the rules for disclosing judicial court records are defined under the California Rules of Court (rule 10.500), which grants anyone the right to request, inspect, or copy any judicial administrative record that is not exempted from disclosure. In addition, depending on the type of information and when it was filed, California records may be available in physical or electronic format.
California Public Criminal Records
California criminal records are generally open to the public. Criminal records provide official documentation of a person's criminal history. They include different types of data, such as the registrant's name, arrest details, charges filed, and sentencing information. Criminal records are publicly available through official agencies. The California Department of Justice serves as the statewide repository for criminal records. However, residents may also obtain record copies by contacting the local county sheriff’s offices and jails. To obtain criminal records in California, you must provide enough details for a search, such as the individual's name or a known correction number.
California Department of Justice
Attn: Public Inquiry Unit
P.O. Box 944255
Sacramento, CA 94244-2550
California Public Arrest Records
California arrest records are generally accessible to members of the public, as provided by the California Public Records Act. However, some information may be redacted or protected from public view. For instance, law enforcement agencies may restrict access to any information that infringes on a person's right to privacy. Records of ongoing investigations may also be redacted.
To obtain a California arrest record, you'll need to know the name of the named registrant as well as the arrest location. Residents may be able to get copies of an arrest record by contacting the California Department of Justice (DOJ). For arrests made by the county, residents must contact the County sheriff's office where the arrest occurred. Depending on the record and the specificity of the request, the processing time for obtaining records may run from a few days to over a week.
California Public Bankruptcy Records
California bankruptcy records contain financial information about individuals and companies who have filed for bankruptcy. They include details such as the subject's name, the date the registrant filed the declaration, and a list of secured and unsecured creditors. Bankruptcy in California falls under the jurisdiction of federal law, not state law, and is thus overseen by the federal court.
The California bankruptcy court system operates across four districts: Northern, Central, Eastern, and Southern Districts. To look up or inspect bankruptcy records, you must submit a request to the respective bankruptcy clerk's office. Residents can also access bankruptcy case records using the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system.
U.S. Bankruptcy Court
1300 Clay St., Ste. 300
Oakland, CA 94612
United States Bankruptcy Court
Central District of California
1415 State Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
California Public Birth Records
California birth records provide essential information about a person's birth, such as the full name of the registrant, the date of birth, and place of birth. California birth certificates also include details such as the full name and signature of parents (if known) as well as the gender of the baby recorded at birth. Birth records are generally open to the public and can be obtained from multiple government agencies.
The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) maintains and processes requests for certified records of births in the state dating back to 1905. However, residents may also be able to obtain copies of a birth record by clerk-recorder in the county where the birth occurred. To obtain public birth records in California, you'll need to submit a completed application form that includes related information, such as the registrant's name and the event's location. You'll also need to pay a fee ($29 as of 2023) to obtain a certified copy.
California Department of Public Health
Vital Records – MS 5103
P.O. Box 997410
Sacramento, CA 95899-7410
California Public Death Records
Oversight of death records in California falls under the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) purview. The department has maintained and provided public access to every death registered in the state since July 1905. Residents within a county can also obtain records of deaths that occurred within a specific county by contacting county offices.
Generally, death records become available two after the event. To obtain certified copies of a California death record, you must submit a request that provides enough information to facilitate a search. Some of the requirements include the full name of the registrant, social security number, date of birth, date of death, and details of the spouse (if any). You'll also need to provide your name and contact details.
Inquirers may submit requests for two types of records: certified copies and certified informational copies. While the latter is available to everyone, authorized persons may only access the former. In addition, the department charges $24 for each certified copy of any death record.
California Department of Public Health
Vital Records – MS 5103
P.O. Box 997410
Sacramento, CA 95899-7410
California Public Marriage Records
California law provides for two broad types of marriage records: public and confidential. While almost anyone can access public marriage records, only the owners of the confidential records can have access to them. Public marriage records generally contain details about marriage events, such as the location where the marriage license was issued, as well as the date of the marriage. Public records also contain the names of the individuals involved in the legal union.
As part of its duties, the California Department of Public Health (via the Vital Records Office) maintains records of marriages that occur across the state. It also provides certified copies of public marriages that occurred between 1905 and 1999 and 2008 to 2022. To obtain copies of a marriage record, you'll need to contact the County Recorder's Office in the county where the marriage license was issued. You'll also need to provide some specific information connected to the record, such as the full name of the spouses.
California Public Divorce Records
Divorce records provide information about a marriage dissolution. Although sometimes used interchangeably, California divorce certificates and divorce decrees are different. Issued by the superior court, a California divorce decree establishes the terms of a divorce, such as child custody, spousal alimony, and asset division. Records of divorce decrees can be obtained by contacting the superior court where the divorce was filed. The time required to process the request typically varies, depending on when the dissolution occurred.
In contrast, a California divorce certificate attests to the finalization of a divorce. Such records can be obtained by submitting a request to the California Department of Public Health. The office maintains records of events since 1905 and charges $24 for each certified copy. Residents wishing to obtain divorce certificates for events before 1905 must contact the county recorder in the respective county.
CA Department of Public Health – Vital Records
P.O. Box 997410
Sacramento, CA 95899-7410
California Public Inmate Records
Records maintained by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation fall under the public records umbrella, meaning almost anyone can access them. This includes information on incarcerated persons recently admitted to or transferred between state facilities. The specifics of what type of inmate information can be obtained by the public are defined under the California Code of Regulations.
To look up public California inmate records, you must provide enough details to process a search, such as the inmate's name or CDCR number. You can search for records using the California Incarcerated Records and Information Search (CIRIS) or submit a public records request directly to the department.
Note: Although the CDCR maintains records of inmates incarcerated in state-run facilities, it does not provide information on inmates in county jails. You must contact the facility or county sheriff's office to obtain public California inmate records for county jails.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,
1515 S St #101n,
California Public Sex Offender Information
In compliance with California's Megan Law, the California Department of Justice maintains an online database that contains details of residents who have been convicted of a sex offense as provided by Penal Code § 290.46. Access to this online platform is generally available to residents and non-residents. Requesters can search using a known name or a geographical location. Searches can also be expanded to include transient offenders.
Note: Although the database includes information on most sex offenders, it excludes details of offenders who have been convicted of select offenses. Registered offenders of Tier 1 and Tier 2 crimes can also petition the department to have their records removed from disclosure.
What is Exempted Under the California Public Records Act?
Although the CPRA is broad-reaching, it provides certain restrictions and exemptions. Record custodians are permitted to deny requests for records that contain information protected by law.
Some examples of public records that may be exempted from release include documents or files that contain any of the following:
- Information related to internal discussions, opinions, decision-making processes, or any internal planning process covered by the Government Code.
- Information on ongoing or pending claims or litigation
- Documents that provide training, instruction, or advice to employees.
- Records providing personal information that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, such as revealing the telephone number or address of government personnel.
- Preliminary writing, such as working papers, notes, drafts, and intra-judicial branch memoranda.
- Documents containing privileged or confidential financial information, the release of which could cause harm to a subject or the judicial branch's ability to obtain future information.
- Records related to the investigation of judges, justices, or candidates for judicial office.
- Records with information that may compromise the safety of government personnel, such as building security plans, investigations, and security surveys.
- Documents containing information exempted or prohibited under state or federal law
- Test questions or any examination date used for certification, employment, or some other qualification.
How Do I Find Public Records in California?
To find public records in California, you'll need some information related to the document or file. For quicker outcomes, requests must reasonably describe the sought record. Most records can be found using details such as the registrant's name, the date of the event, a file or case number, or the name of the government officer on record. However, while many records can be accessed online, some may require you to submit your request in person or via mail. Records that can't be obtained online can be acquired by submitting a public record request. Most agencies provide a downloadable application form that users can fill out to facilitate the process.
Can I Find Free Public Records in California Using Third-Party Sites?
Public records may be accessible via third-party sites. However, records' accuracy tends to vary depending on where the record was created, the type of record, and the date of creation. Most third-party sites are unaffiliated or unendorsed by specific California government agencies. Instead, the records contained are compiled from multiple jurisdictions, including counties and cities outside California. To find free public records in California using third-party platforms, requesters must provide specific information to process the search, such as the registrant's name or an identification number.
How Much Do Public Records Cost in California?
While the cost of obtaining a public record varies from a few cents to over $20 per copy, the actual cost depends on multiple factors, such as the type of record, the number of copies, whether the record is certified or not, the record location, and the length of time it takes to find the record. For instance, government agencies may charge 10 cents per page for obtaining document copies. In contrast, the California Department of Public Health charges significantly more for each copy of a certified vital record. Certified copies of birth records cost $29 per copy, while certified copies of death records cost $24 per copy. Marriage dissolutions cost $16 per copy compared to $16 for marriage records.
Fees may sometimes be optional. Some California departments provide waivers for requesters who meet certain eligibility requirements. For instance, individuals who wish to obtain records from the Department of Justice may get a $25 waiver if any of the following situations apply to them:
- They have no income
- They rely on public assistance such as food stamps, Medi-Cal, or disability.
- Their monthly income falls below a specific margin.
Note: Although government agencies charge fees for obtaining public records, the cost does not include the actual record. Public records are free. Instead, the cost covers the cost of making copies as well as the services of record custodians.
What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?
Public record requests may be denied for multiple reasons. For instance, record custodians may deny a request if it isn't specific enough or if the request is considered "unduly bothersome." Requests for records that are exempt from disclosure are also likely to be denied. This includes documents containing confidential, sealed, or protected information.
Residents who are refused access to a public record can seek redress in a court. Per the CPRA, record seekers have the right to file a petition in court to enforce their right to inspect or receive a copy of the disputed record. If the court decides, upon review of the submitted evidence and arguments, that the record was illegally withheld, an order will be issued to reverse the decision. However, if the court believes the refusal to disclose the records was justified, an order affirming this decision will be issued.
Orders issued by a court affirming or reversing a record custodian's decision aren't final. All parties involved still have the right to file a petition to the appellate court. However, this appeal must be filed within a specified time frame. In the event that the plaintiff wins the legal process and the denied request is reversed, the judicial branch becomes responsible for paying the court's costs and attorney fees. However, if the filed petition is considered frivolous, the plaintiff will be ordered to cover the cost and fees of the judicial branch.