How to obtain various public records in California

Access to public records in California has come a long way since the Golden State first enacted the California Open Records Act (CPRA) in 1968 to uphold the public’s right to peer into government business. The series of laws, covered in Section 6250 through 6270, is a fundamental and necessary right of every citizen of California.

There are several ways to obtain public records depending on the nature of the record and guidelines adopted by the record custodian. Many government agencies, like the Department of Corrections, maintain electronic databases from which citizens may retrieve information remotely. These records are also available in paper form, but this method of retrieval is typically arduous especially if you seek multiple records in different areas or jurisdictions.

While the Open Records Act, in theory, allows citizens access to government records, the process is nuanced, and there are several reports of public agencies stifling attempts to access their records. For instance, in October 2020, the Los Angeles Times filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County after officials refused to disclose records about alleged sexual misconduct against employees of the district attorney’s office. Another article discussed violations of the CPRA by the Glendora City Police Department. In those cases, the denials were based on technicalities in the Act. Indeed, it is common practice for many public agencies to exploit certain loopholes or ambiguity in the Act until the requester obtains a court order to enforce the request.  

How then can ordinary citizens and the press obtain public records? It depends on the agency maintaining the record. Generally, the Act directs public agencies to adopt policies and set minimum standards that interested requesters must meet to access the record of interest. Thus, the onus is on you to find out the procedure established by the agency. This article discusses how to obtain various public records from some agencies in the state. 

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the agency charged with operating state prisons and parole system, allows access to publicly available records on inmates, staff, and its activities. However, to access these records the requester must follow the agency’s media policy, which enumerates the list of records available to the public. To obtain records on inmates currently incarcerated in facilities around the state, you may use the CDCR inmate locator. Input the offender’s CDCR number if known, or use the offender’s name to query the database. However, this query will only return basic information and may not satisfy the reasons for your search. Thus, to obtain additional information, you must use the public records request portal.

Likewise, accessing records maintained by the Judiciary of California is also slightly nuanced. If a person seeks records on civil and criminal cases in California, they may request copies of such records at the Clerk of Courts in the county where the case was filed. Anyone may visit the court in person during business hours, but remote access to electronic court records in court-specific. For example, the Los Angeles County Superior Court maintains a case finder for criminal and civil cases. Use the court finder to find the location and contact information of the court of interest. In-person and remote access to court records typically incurs access fees and other applicable fees. These fees vary from county to county.

On the other hand, if a requester seeks access to judicial administrative records, they must download and complete a request form. You may send the completed form by mail or email to:

Public Access to Judicial Administrative Records

Legal Services

455 Golden Gate Avenue

San Francisco, California 94102

Email: PAJAR@jud.ca.gov

Fees only apply when a requester intends to use the records obtained for commercial or profit interests. 

Obtaining records from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is also slightly nuanced as the aforementioned public agencies. On one end, the department only grants eligible requesters access to vital records of events within the Golden State. Thus, records on birth, death, marriage, and divorce are only available to individuals named on the records and their legal designees. Nevertheless, members of the public may obtain these records if armed with a court order.

To obtain a vital record:

  • Download and complete the applicable request form
  • Attach a valid government-issued photo I.D.
  • Attach a certified check or money order for the applicable fee of $25.00 per copy.

Enclose the application in a self-addressed stamped envelope and mail to:

California Department of Public Health

Vital Records – MS 5103

P.O. Box 997410

Sacramento, CA 95899-7410

Phone: (916) 445-2684

Email: CHSIVitalRecords@cdph.ca.gov

On the other hand, unlike vital records, members of the public may obtain the majority of the records that the department of public health maintains with a few exceptions. To obtain publicly available records, submit a public records request with the CPDH. However, to begin, the requester must create an account with the CPDH. If the total cost associated with the request is less than $2.00, the CPDH will waive associated fees.

Meanwhile, public records at the Office of the Secretary of State are also available to interested members of the public. All requesters must follow the guidelines adopted by the Office of the Secretary of State.

There is a common characteristic to all public requests to access government records: the requester must provide the necessary identifying information. The information must also describe the record in detail to aid administrative staff in the prompt retrieval of such a record. The information typically required includes the names on the record, the date of creation or filing, location, and any unique number. While it may be practical to use independent service providers when requesting records in multiple jurisdictions, bear in mind that these service providers are not affiliated with the government. Consequently, record availability is not guaranteed. On their end, the CPRA directs public record custodians to respond to a public records request within ten (10) business days. Contrary to this, the custodian may incur fines and other sanctions.Summarily, accessing public records in California involves following guidelines and protocols set down by the public agency. In addition to known government agencies, California citizens can request public records from agencies funded partly or wholly by public funds. Likewise, as far as a document was involved in the conduction of government business, it is the right of citizens to access or view such a document. As always, there are exceptions to this rule, especially in matters of public safety and confidential information. Thus, record custodians will decline a request to access such public records unless a court order directs otherwise. Besides, the custodian may release records but redact all sensitive information. It is also noteworthy that public access to official records is changing. In the last couple of years, the California legislature has introduced several bills that could impact access to public information as we know it.