Are Washington Records Public?
The Washington Public Records Act states that government-generated records are public records. Under the act, all persons can inspect or obtain copies of government records created or maintained at the municipal, county, or state levels by submitting a public record act request. Washington law defines public records as information related to the conduct and performance of any government function. The definition also covers all records created, owned, prepared, used, or retained by a governmental entity. Examples of these public records include vital records, such as Washington death records, court records, sex offender information, inmate records, bankruptcy records, and property records.
According to RCW 42.56.010(3), public records may also include legislative records (RCW 40.14.100), such as reports, meetings of minutes, amendments, and correspondence created or received by legislative committees and subcommittees. This section also covers administrative legislative records, such as travel information, payroll records, budget and financial records, records of legislative sessions, and any other record considered public by official action of the Washington House of Representatives or State Senate.
In addition, public records Washington generates include handwritten or typewritten documents, duplicated records, photographs, and all other means of recording, such as audio, video, tapes, maps, and information stored on digital devices. Thus, the general public may access this information by performing a public data search.
Several sections of the Public Records Act ensure public access to government records. For instance, RCW 42.56.030 expressly states that each public agency must liberally construe the Public Records Act to ensure that requesters obtain desired records unless exempted by law or otherwise restricted. Furthermore, Washington requires that state agencies must provide the public with information on how to make public record requests, including methods of submission. According to RCW 42.56.040(1), each agency must publish this information in the Washington Administrative Code and prominently display the details at its central office. Although agencies are required to make public records available to the public, a free public data search is not a requirement.
Who Can Access Washington Public Records?
The Washington Public Records Act provides all persons with access to public records. Under RCW 42.56.080(2), public agencies must not distinguish between persons requesting public records. This means that all persons can obtain public records in Washington, regardless of residential or other restrictions. Thus, a background check is allowed to be performed on a state resident to look up their past through public records.
What is Exempted Under the Washington Public Records Act?
Although the act grants access to most records, some records are exempt from public access. Washington law considers some information confidential or private and ensures that access is only allowed to privileged persons or entities. Under the Washington Public Records Act, the following exemptions apply:
- Personal Information: Under RCW 42.56.230, Washington prevents public access to a wide range of personal information. Record custodians must deny access to personal details of students, patients, clients of public institutions, children enrolled in schools, child care centers, youth development programs, and other related endeavors. Other exempt information includes personal financial information, and personal details of public employees, elected officials, and appointees. Furthermore, all records used to prove age, identity, social security number, and residential address must be restricted.
- Investigative, Law Enforcement, and Crime Victim Information: Many investigative and law enforcement records are not open to the public. This exemption covers all intelligence and investigative records compiled by law enforcement and penology agencies. According to RCW 42.56.240, this also includes records created or compiled by state agencies responsible for enforcing discipline among members of any profession. Furthermore, all records containing personal identifying information on witnesses, complainants, or crime victims are restricted.
- Security Information: Members of the general public cannot inspect or obtain copies of records maintained, created, or compiled to prevent or mitigate criminal terrorist acts or any other acts that breach the conduct of government or threaten public safety. Under RCW 42.56.420, these include vulnerability assessments, records of security briefings, and emergency or escape response plans.
- Real Estate Appraisals: All documents regarding a public agency’s real estate transactions, including records created for property consideration, appraisal, and acquisition, are exempt. Custodians must also withhold any document containing information that could lead to a price increase. (RCW 42.56.260).
- Preliminary Notes and Drafts: Records containing preliminary recommendations, drafts, intra-agency memorandums, and notes that contain expressed opinions and policy recommendations are exempt under the Washington Public Records Act. (RCW 42.56.280).
- Employment and Licensing Information: According to RCW 42.56.250, records created or used for licensing or employment purposes are exempt from public inspection and copying. These records include test questions, corresponding scoring keys, and other related examination data. Information exempted under this section also includes personnel records that contain personal identifying information of employees and volunteers.
- Certain Vital Records: Effective January 1, 2021, vital records, supporting documentation, reports, and other related data are not available to the public. (RCW 42.56.365). Access to these records is restricted to a closed group of requesters, including the persons named on the records, close family members, and legal representatives.
Although the Washington Public Records Act establishes the above exemptions to public disclosure, RCW 42.56.030 specifies that all exemptions should be narrowly construed in favor of public policy and to protect the public interest. However, the public must note that except for establishing costs for obtaining public records, the provisions of the Public Records Act must supersede any other act in the event of conflict (RCW 42.56.130).
Where Can I Access Public Criminal Court Records in Washington?
Anyone interested in criminal court records may submit a request to the court that heard the case. Criminal cases in Washington are under the jurisdiction of the state’s Superior and District Courts. Interested persons may request in person and by mail. Each request should properly describe the desired court record and include names, dates, charge descriptions, and details of the court’s final disposition. For these requests, parties may use the Washington Court Directory to find each court’s contact information.
The Washington Courts also provide a name search platform for public access to free state court records. Parties can search by entering a litigant’s last, first, or middle name. The last and first-name fields are compulsory. Available details include a case number, docket dates, docket codes, docket descriptions, miscellaneous information, and the name of the court that heard the case.
Parties must note that information on the outcome of a court case is not available online. Interested persons must contact the court that heard the case using the information available on the search result page or the Washington Court Directory.
How Do I Find Public Records in Washington?
Finding public records requires the record seeker to follow a few steps. While specifics may vary depending on the type of record and the custodian agency’s preference, the following steps describe how to access public records in Washington:
- Decide on the desired information
Knowing what record to request is the first step to finding Washington public records. Since there are several types of public records, determining what type of information is needed helps to identify the type of record to be requested. For instance, persons looking for information on land or building ownership and related specifics must request property records. Meanwhile, vital record requests are directed to the State Department of Health.
- Identify the custodian agency.
The next step is to identify the agency maintaining the record. Each Washington public agency maintains records according to its functions and responsibilities. Deciding on the type of information directly assists the requester with identifying the agency that handles the desired records. For instance, Washington divorce records are obtainable from the Superior Court that heard the case or the Washington State Department of Health.
- Write a request.
After deciding on the desired information and identifying the custodian agency, the requester must submit an official request. The Washington Public Records Act has no requirement for written requests. However, a written request creates ease as it helps to provide the agency or record custodian with exhaustive information on the desired record. The request should clearly state certain specifics, such as whether the applicant wants a plain or certified copy and the desired number of copies.
According to RCW 42.56.080(1), the request must be for an identifiable record. Record seekers should ensure that the submitted request is as specific as possible, describing the desired record with extensive details. Record requests should also include the requester’s full name and contact details, along with a cash, money order, or check payment, or as preferred by the custodian agency.
- Submit the request.
Agencies usually offer different submission methods. In most cases, available options include mail, phone, online, fax, and in-person methods. Instead of sending requests, some records may also be obtainable online on the county website. For instance, residents can conduct a Pierce County public records search through an online records directory provided by the county government. Requesters must note that some methods may be faster than others, and may cost varying fees.
Using Third-Party Sites
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 Washington?
Inspecting a public record is free of charge. RCW 42.56.120(1) states that no agency should charge requesters an inspection or search fee. However, an agency may charge a reasonable fee for duplicating records or allowing its equipment to be used for the duplication. In this case, the fee should not exceed the amount necessary to refund the agency for the actual duplication cost.
The Washington Public Records Act also provides maximum fee amounts for instances where the agency has not established the exact cost of duplicating the records. Where this happens, agencies may not charge more than the following:
- 15 cents per page for printed copies or photocopies.
- 10 cents per page for scanned copies.
- 5 cents for four electronic files uploaded or attached to an email, a cloud-based service, or other electronic delivery methods.
Alternatively, the agency may charge a flat fee not more than $2 if it reasonably believes that the cost of a request is equal to or higher than $2. However, any agency that does this cannot charge any of the above fees or charge additional fees for records produced in installments.
How Do I Look Up Public Records in Washington for Free?
The Washington Public Records Act does not explicitly provide any fee waivers. In most cases, physical copies of desired public records cost copy or duplication fees. However, within the limits of its rules and regulations, an agency may waive request fees for public records ( see RCW 42.56.120(4)).
Free public records searches in Washington may only be obtainable by searching public databases provided by public agencies. Some agencies regularly update online repositories containing some of the non-confidential information they maintain, and provide the information free of charge. However, record seekers must note that information obtained online may not always be accurate and is usually not certified. Examples include the Washington Department of Corrections inmate search page and the state’s sex offender registry.
Unfortunately, most of the public records held by the clerk's and recorder's offices in Washington Counties are rarely made available without charge to those who request them. County deeds and court records are two examples of these records.
Do I Need to State My Purpose When Requesting Public Records in Washington?
Washington public agencies do not require requesters to provide statements of purpose. All members of the public are free to inspect or duplicate all non-confidential public records. However, the Washington Public Records Act provides some restrictions.
According to RCW 42.56.070(8), agencies should not release lists of individuals to any record seeker requesting for commercial purposes. In addition, agencies must deny requests from imprisoned criminals if the request aims to harass a public agency or an employee, or to assist criminal activity.
What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?
Washington offers two options to people whose public data search requests are denied by state government agencies. Per RCW 43.56.550, the requester can file a lawsuit in the Superior Court of the county where the record is located. If the lawsuit is against a county, the person may file in the adjoining county’s Superior Court. The requester may also bring an action for an unreasonable delay on the agency’s part.
The agency must establish that it justly denied the request or that its estimated response time was reasonable. If the court rules in the requester’s favor, the court will order the agency to pay costs, including attorney fees, to the requester. The court will also award an amount not more than $100 for each day that access was denied.
Requesters also have the option of contacting the Office of the Attorney General for a review. The office would promptly review the case and provide the requester with a written opinion on whether access to the record should be restricted. However, this process does not apply to denials by local agencies. In addition, the Attorney General’s written opinion is not binding on the requester or the agency. A requester applying for this review may submit a written application, a copy of the request submitted to the agency, and the agency’s written denial, to the following address:
Office of the Attorney General
Public Records Review
P.O. Box 40100
Olympia, WA 98504-0100
How to Remove Names From Public Search Records?
Removing names from Washington state public records requires submitting sealing or expungement petitions to the appropriate court (such as a municipal, district, juvenile, or superior court). However, the requester must ensure that the sealing or expungement complies with state law. For instance, criminal records for several sexual and violent crimes cannot be sealed or expunged. In such cases, names may permanently remain on public search records. For other types of records, the person applying for the expungement must prove to the court that the need to restrict access to the record outweighs the public’s right of access.
Furthermore, interested parties may have to repeat the process of sealing or expungement for each type of record containing an affected name. These processes differ and may have varying requirements for eligibility. Sealing and expunging records makes them publicly inaccessible under the Washington State Public Records Act.
What is the Best Public Records Search Database?
The best public records search database depends on the type of record desired since there is no central repository for all Washington public records. For instance, the best place to find sex offender information is the online registry maintained by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs in compliance with the state public record act. Depending on the desired record, the best public records search database may be a repository maintained at the county level rather than at the state level by state government agencies. Interested persons can conduct a King County public records search for property records via the Assessor’s search page. Pierce County provides an online search page for several public records, while a Snohomish County public records search for inmates is possible through the county’s daily jail booking register.
How Long Does It Take to Obtain a Washington Public Record?
The Washington Public Records Act states that a state or local government agency must respond to a public record act request within five business days. According to RCW 42.56.520, the agency must respond in one of the following ways:
- Provide the record
- Provide the requester with a website for the specific records. If the requester cannot access the internet, the agency must either provide physical copies or allow the requester to use an agency computer to view copies.
- Acknowledge the request and provide the requester with a reasonable time estimate required to provide the record.
- Acknowledge receipt of the request, ask for further clarification if the request is unclear, and state a reasonable time estimate to provide the record. If the requester fails to respond, the agency may not satisfy the initial request (RCW 42.56.520).
- Deny the request to access public information maintained by the agency with a written statement stating specific reasons.
Is Public Data Search Safe?
Yes. The dissemination of public records through public data search services is permitted under the Washington Public Record Act. Thus, users of these services may not face any repercussions from law enforcement agencies for using them.
However, not every public data search service complies with the Fair Credit Reporting Act. This act is responsible for ensuring that public records are used fairly. Basically, public records obtained from non-FCRA-compliant sources can be utilized only for personal purposes, such as satisfying one's curiosity. It is against the law to use public records from non-FCRA-compliant websites for official reasons (including job screening), and users who do so risk legal repercussions.
Some third-party public data search services may also advertise free public data searches. These websites might not necessarily be free, though. Users often only have partial access to these website services and must pay a fee or subscription to gain full access. Most third websites also maintain the right to use their users' information as they see fit, including selling these data.