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Are North Carolina Records Public?

Yes. North Carolina records are generally open to the public—except where exempted by law or court order. The North Carolina Public Records Law preserves the public's right to access records generated by governmental bodies. Specifically, it permits the public to inspect or obtain copies of any record created or maintained in connection with the transaction of public business. Public records may exist in different forms, such as paper documents. Public records may also consist of maps, photographs, digital recordings, or electronic data.

It should be noted that despite the accessibility granted to citizens of the state by the state public records act, the records are not in the open for everyone to copy. Anyone interested in any public record must engage in a public data search.

Individuals can utilize the various search tools offered by various government agency sites to conduct a free public data search. After locating the desired record and the agency maintaining it, individuals will send a public records act request to the custodian of the record to inspect or copy the record.

Who Can Access North Carolina Public Records?

Anyone can access North Carolina Public records. Unlike some states, North Carolina's public record laws do not restrict who can access public records in the state. State residents and non-residents have the right to examine, inspect or obtain copies of records held by custodians. The right to access records also extends to corporations, associations, and partnerships. For instance, organizations during recruitment exercises may conduct a background check on applicants to determine who is the best fit for the position and to safeguard the peace of the workplace and society by employing applicants who are not prone to crime. Requests for public records in North Carolina can be submitted over the phone, by email, or in writing.

What Records are Exempted Under the North Carolina Public Record Law?

Government agencies in North Carolina may deny public access to a record if it's found to contain information that's protected by law or court order. Some of the categories of records not subject to open access include:

How Do I Find Public Records in North Carolina?

Interested parties can access or obtain copies of public records maintained by any North Carolina department by following several quick steps.

Step 1. Determine the type of record required.

North Carolina has over 160 government agencies and subdivisions, and each of them generates data that the public can access as public records. Therefore, people seeking access must have an idea of the specific North Carolina department in charge of the information they seek. Luckily, they can be accessed online via the state's official website. Some of the most popular records accessed are:

  • North Carolina Vital records: The State Department of Health and Human Services is the repository of records on births, deaths, marriages, adoptions (vital life events), and divorce in North Carolina. Similar records are also available at the Register of Deeds office in each county. However, birth certificates for adopted children can only be obtained from the Vital records unit of DHHS. At the same time, eligible parties can access divorce certificates through the clerk of courts in the county where it was filed.
  • North Carolina Criminal Records: Comprise information on people with a history of arrest, conviction, imprisonment, and probation. The North Carolina Department of Justice makes such information accessible to the general public in its capacity as the central repository of criminal history records for the state.
  • North Carolina Court Records: These records are generated during court proceedings. Either criminal or civil cases. Interested members of the public can access North Carolina court records online. Court records include court notes, dockets, transcripts, and other administrative information. Public court records are maintained by the office of the clerk of courts in each county under the North Carolina Judicial Branch.

Step 2. Determine the government agency in the custody of the public records.

Enquirers can access the administrative records of public organizations directly from the specific office or website of the agency or department in charge of keeping such records. In North Carolina for example, any information on agriculture, food, and drug protection, plant industry, pesticides, etc is maintained by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Also, the North Carolina Judicial Branch maintains court documents and makes over 1000 judicial forms accessible to the public. NC Department of Health and Human Services maintains information on vital records, while records on court programs, court dates, online services, court forms, and other court services are kept by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC) in the office of the Courts clerk.

Likewise, the North Carolina Department of Public Instructions controls information about education in the state. Others are the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, where information on inmates, juvenile offenses, prisons, and community corrections are domiciled while the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality handles information on environmental resources - water quality, air quality, wildlife, and public health.

Step 3. Determine accessibility.

It is the duty of enquirers to find out whether records can be accessed by the general public or not. This can be done by visiting the office in question to enquire or by going online to do a little research. Records that are protected under the exception statutes are generally in two groups. Some can only be accessed by authorized persons, such as the actual owner of the record and close relatives. Examples include birth certificates, death certificates, marriage and divorce certificates, adoption records, income tax records as those accessible to authorized persons, and those that are sealed by the order of the court.

Step 4. Determine the Availability.

Some public records are available online. To access records excluded from online repositories, enquirers are expected to visit the office location to obtain the records or write to request that copies be sent via fax or normal mail.

Step 5. Contact the Record Holder

Submit a request letter: Interested persons are required to submit a written request to the particular North Carolina department in charge of the record of interest. The description of the record must be detailed and specific. Alternatively, record seekers may fill an FOIA request form. Applicants can submit requests via email, fax, certified mail, or by personal delivery.

Provide a valid means of identification: North Carolina departments require enquirers to identify themselves to ensure that the enquirer is actually the person requesting access to his or her records, and not an imposter. The inquirer may also be required to submit a notarized statement signed under penalty of perjury confirming the inquirer is who they say they are.

Make Payment: No official charges are attached to public records, but the law permits government agencies to charge nominal fees sufficient to make copies of the records for interested persons. Even at that, requesters may be exempted from paying by applying for waivers.

Using Third-Party Sites to Find Public Records in North Carolina

Some public 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 use these tools to search for a specific record or multiple records. However, users must typically 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

Government agencies do not sponsor third-party sites. Hence, record availability and results may vary.

How Much Do Public Records Cost in North Carolina?

The exact cost of obtaining a public record varies with different agencies. North Carolina laws do not specify an exact cost for providing records beyond a provision that the fee must not exceed the actual cost of making copies of a record. It also provides no exemptions for fee waivers, as is the approach in some other states. Record custodians typically charge a fixed fee for making a certified copy as well as an additional fee for extra copies.

How Do I Look Up Public Records in North Carolina for Free?

Residents of North Carolina can conduct free public searches of some records through government agencies' databases. For instance, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety maintains an offender public information search/inmate locator. Hence, anyone can search this database to locate inmates in prison, parolees, and probationers in the state. Also, the State Bureau of Investigation maintains a database on sex offenders. This database, the North Carolina Sex Offenders Registry, can be accessed online by citizens anywhere in the state.

It should be noted that some public records though not online, can still be accessed for free at the County Clerk's office. However, there are some records that search or copy fees apply to them. With such records, individuals who wish to access them must, of necessity, pay the specified fee or apply for a waiver if they meet specific requirements before the record is released by the agencies maintaining them.

Do I Need to State My Purpose When Requesting Public Records in North Carolina?

No. Declaration of purpose is not a prerequisite for accessing public records in North Carolina. Specifically, North Carolina Statute § 132-6 explains that no individual requesting records will be required to state a purpose. Therefore, anyone can submit a request for public records in North Carolina using the online public records request form, in writing, over the phone, or via email without explaining the reason for the request.

What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?

A successful public data search will inform where the individuals will have to direct the record request. The state's public records law stipulates that the record's custodian must make it available within a reasonable time. Occasionally, record requests are denied for different reasons. The correct response to a denied request will depend on the reason for the refusal. State government agencies may refuse a public record request if the record in custody does not correspond to the information provided in the request. In such instances, requesters may obtain the right record by updating their request with the correct information.

Record custodians are also allowed to refuse a public records request for documents that were not created, made, or received during the course of public business. In the event that a request is denied because it's considered to fall under the list of exemptions permitted by law, applicants may be able to get part of the record with the exempted portions redacted or removed. Requesters who feel their requests have been unjustly dismissed may be able to force disclosure.

North Carolina's Freedom of information act (FOIA) gives requesters different legal remedies for denied requests. But before adopting any of them, requesters are advised first to adopt the informal approach. Record seekers may be able to resolve the dispute by reaching out to the agency's custodian to find out the reason (s) for denial. This is usually the easiest and most effective method, especially if the records are not sealed by law.

Where there's a law or court order involved, it is sometimes possible to get the record by allowing the confidential part to be redacted. Otherwise, the next step is to appeal by writing to the agency's FOIA Appeals Officer. For the appeal letter to be approved, it must present a strong argument based on the provisions of section 552(a)(6) of the FOIA, and the grounds for appeal must be stated clearly. The law requires that a final ruling on the appeal should be passed within 20 working days of submission.

If the rejection is because the information required is classified, applicants must write a request letter mandating a declassification review of such records. After appealing, another option is to seek mediation through the FOIA ombudsman, recently authorized through the Open Government Act of 2007. The final option is to file a lawsuit in order to enforce the provisions of the North Carolina Public Record Law. This must be done no later than six years from the date of the initial appeal, even if the agency did not respond to the appeal.

How to Remove Names From Public Search Records

Removing personal information from public records is not very easy. However, the Public Records Law in North Carolina allows for redacting confidential/personal information from some records before granting access to the public. This method is one way to remove names and other confidential information from public records.

On the other hand, the North Carolina laws allow individuals that have satisfied some legal requirements to expunge some information from their criminal history records. Once this is done, individuals need not worry about removing names from public records because expunged records are sealed and no longer available to the public in their entirety.

What is the Best Public Records Search Database?

Finding the best public records search database in North Carolina will depend on the type of record. Generally, the best public records search database is any system maintained by the state government agencies directly in charge of the records. For instance, per the North Carolina public records act, the North Carolina State Bureau of Information provides the best place to search for sex offender information. And residents in search of court records will find the best results using any database offered or managed by the custodian court.

How Long Does It Take to Obtain a North Carolina Public Record?

The Public Records Law in North Carolina does not specify a certain number of days for the various government agencies maintaining public records to respond to a request. However, the law stipulates that access to records must be granted at ¨reasonable times.¨ This implies that government agencies must respond to requests as ¨promptly as possible¨ except outside regular business hours.

Is Public Data Search Safe?

Yes. Anyone interested can safely use public data search services to locate any record of choice. Based on the North Carolina public records act, individuals can conduct a free public data search using the search tools provided on the websites of several government agencies.

On the other hand, individuals can use third-party agencies to carry out a public data search. The risk associated with this search is the possibility of data aggregation websites picking the personal data of individuals. Thereby leading to personal data breaches. However, individuals may require various steps, such as court actions or the involvement of law enforcement agencies, to opt out of these databases later.