Table of Contents
- 1What Are Public Records?
- 2Are There Exceptions to What I Can Access?
- 3Pennsylvania Public Records Law
- 4Background Checks / Criminal History
- 5Jail and Inmate Records
- 6Sex Offender Records
- 7Most Wanted Records
- 8Court Records
- 9Missing Persons Records
- 10Driving Records
- 11Property Records in Pennsylvania
- 12Unclaimed Property in Pennsylvania
- 13Wills and Probate
- 14Vital Records
- 14.1Birth Certificates
- 14.2Adoption Records
- 14.3Marriage and Divorce Records
- 14.4Death Certificates
Looking for public records in Pennsylvania?
Great. This guide has got you covered.
Whether you are looking for a background check on a prospective employee or tenant, or you need to check your own driving record or court records, the information is available to you.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does maintain public records including birth certificates and marriage licenses, wills, property records, and more.
It is also your right to access public records in the State of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania law maintains that it is your right to know and access government documents.
The birthplace of the Constitution is of course going to protect and defend your right to a free and open government by the people, for the people.
You can access legislative proceedings and other official documents pertaining to state and local governance.
Alternatively, you can access your own personal information that is kept by the state—such as driving records or arrest records.
Sometimes it takes a while to find the public records you are looking for, but this guide will make it easier for you to sift through the various Pennsylvania government agencies at state and local levels.
So what are you waiting for? Begin your search for public records in Pennsylvania now with this handy guide.
What Are Public Records?
Before we begin, let’s clarify what exactly public records are.
Public records refer to almost any information that is created an/or kept by a government agency in Pennsylvania.
There are two main types of public records in Pennsylvania:
- Private/Personal Records
- Government Records
Private and personal records are generally the vital records you may think of when you need a birth certificate, death certificate, or marriage certificate.
However, some private records are actually classified as government records when they have a bearing on public health or safety. For example:
Criminal, arrest, and court records become public records due to the fact that criminal behaviors impact the general public.
Likewise, most courts in Pennsylvania are open and therefore court records are generally government records.
Are There Exceptions to What I Can Access?
Yes. There are some exceptions to freedom of information laws in Pennsylvania.
Juvenile records are generally not considered public record, for example.
Records that include personal correspondences or emails are also not typically public records.
To protect your privacy the following types of information are not considered public record either:
- Social security numbers
- Driver license numbers
- Employee data
- Personal financial information
The Pennsylvania courts may also decide that some documents or records are to be kept confidential to protect the public or certain parties. Examples would be trade secrets or any information that would jeopardize public safety such as information about public utilities operations.
Generally, though, the government is obliged to uphold your right to access government records. Freedom of information and a transparent, open government are the cornerstones of democracy and American democracy was born in Pennsylvania!
Pennsylvania Public Records Law
Pennsylvania did not always protect your right to access public records.
It wasn’t until 1987 that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed the Pennsylvania Open Meetings Act, known as the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.
This act was the first step towards a truly open government, but even then you could not readily access all public records as easily as you can now.
Until 2008, Pennsylvania heavily restricted your right to access many government records.
The 2008 Right to Know Law now stands as the definitive document protecting the democratic principle of freedom of information.
The Right to Know Law covers all aspects of freedom of information, including what types of documents or data you can access.
You can access photographs, maps, and other multimedia content as well as published written material.
In some cases you may have to pay a fee to receive copies of the public record, but generally the government is legally obliged to fulfill your request unless you request some information that is exempt from the public records such as a person’s social security number.
The Right to Know Law is now known as the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. This is because it is generally considered as an update to the previous Pennsylvania Sunshine Act that ensured your right to access all open meetings in the state.
The Right to Know Law/Sunshine Act also protects your right as a citizen to access public meetings in the state, and to have copies of the transcripts of those meetings as well as any conferences or forums where matters pertaining to public works or any public matter is being discussed.
Another law that pertains to public records in Pennsylvania is the Pennsylvania Criminal History Information Act (Chapter 91 of Title 18 of the Crimes Code)
The Criminal History Information Act maintains that all criminal justice agencies have access to a person’s full criminal history record, and in some cases individuals like you may access the same criminal history or background check.
Similarly, the Pennsylvania Megan’s Law (42 Pa.C.S § 9799.32(1) mandates that the Pennsylvania State Police maintain a sex offender registry, containing all persons who have been convicted of (or pled guilty to) sex offenses.
All states are subject also the federal government’s Freedom of Information Act. Presided over by the United States Department of State, the Freedom of Information Act covers public records at the federal level.
When you are searching for records specific to Pennsylvania, though, you need to narrow your search to Pennsylvania state or municipal agencies.
This guide will help you locate the Pennsylvania state public records you need, fast.
How Do I Find….
Background Checks / Criminal History
The Pennsylvania State Police now have a comprehensive statewide database including all criminal records and criminal history.
In accordance with the Pennsylvania Criminal History Information Act, you can submit a request for a background check.
Therefore, if you are interested in conducting a background check on yourself or another person in Pennsylvania, you just need to visit the Pennsylvania State Police website.
The Pennsylvania State Police created the Pennsylvania Access to Criminal History (PATCH) system just so you can search the criminal history records and conduct a background check easily.
To use PATCH, you do need to pay a fee and you will only receive a digital copy of the records that you seek.
What information is contained on a background check in Pennsylvania, or a criminal history record?
It depends, as not all information may be released unless you are a member of a criminal justice agency.
Generally speaking, you will be able to access information such as:
- Conviction record
- Recent charges (within the past three years)
- Warrants for arrest
Why would someone want to do a background check? Why would you want to access your own criminal history?
There are several legitimate reasons why you or anyone else needs this information.
If you are an employer, you do have the right to know whether a person has a criminal record.
Pennsylvania law protects your right to access these types of public records, but employers may only consider an applicant’s criminal record if it has a direct bearing on their ability to perform their job. In other words, employers are not permitted to discriminate based on the results of the background check.
However, some employment sectors have greater leeway in their discretion to use background check information in their hiring decisions.
For example, childcare, education, some healthcare and government sectors may—and some cases must—conduct criminal history background checks on their prospective or current employees in Pennsylvania.
If you are applying for a position that involves operating a commercial vehicle, then your employer is permitted to access your full background and criminal history.
Likewise, if you are applying for a government position, you may be asked to submit a criminal background check.
If you are a property owner, you may want to conduct background checks on prospective tenants.
If you have a criminal record, you may also want to know what that record includes to empower yourself with information.
Your attorney may also want to access your criminal history to help you in a case.
Jail and Inmate Records
You may need to search for an inmate currently incarcerated in a Pennsylvania prison or jail.
Family members and friends may want to visit, contact, or send money to an inmate.
Use the Inmate Locator system to find an inmate in Pennsylvania by name, location, or other identifying information.
Victims and members of the community may want access to this information, which is covered under freedom of information laws in Pennsylvania.
You can also search for inmate records by Pennsylvania County.
Sex Offender Records
As in many states, Pennsylvania has a law that requires the police maintain a sex offender registry.
The legislation is known as Megan’s Law (42 Pa.C.S § 9799.32(1), and this makes sex offender records part of the public records you can search.
Visit the Pennsylvania State Police website to search the sex offender registry in Pennsylvania.
You can search sex offender records by geographic location (such as county, municipality, or ZIP code) by name, or by offense.
Why search the sex offender registry in Pennsylvania?
Parents, educators, and concerned citizens have the right to know when there is a convicted sex offender in their community. This information is considered public knowledge because it is designed to empower you to make decisions that will protect your family.
Remember that the information you find in the public record on sex offenders in Pennsylvania cannot be misused to harass a person.
Learn more at the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART) website, which is maintained by the United States Department of Justice.
Most Wanted Records
The Pennsylvania State Police also allow you to search the latest Pennsylvania “most wanted” list.
The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania provides a convenient and comprehensive means of accessing court records in the state.
When you access the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania to locate court records, you can do so for several reasons, and access different types of data including:
- Aggregates and statistics pertaining to caseloads
- Individual case information by docket
- Salary, compensation, and other financial data pertinent to the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania
- Other types of public records held by the courts.
You may be compiling evidence for an appeal, and need access to the record and to prior case law.
You may be conducting research.
Regardless of your reason, it is your right to know.
You may want to search Pennsylvania court records by judicial district, depending on the jurisdiction of your case.
Use this list of Pennsylvania judicial districts to narrow your search.
In Pennsylvania, you can access court records from the state’s Supreme Court, the Superior Courts, and the Commonwealth Courts.
You can also access Common Pleas in criminal court, and magisterial court records.
Criminal, civil, and traffic court records will all be available to you to search.
Missing Persons Records
When adults and children go missing in Pennsylvania, the Office of Victim Advocate may maintain public records pertaining to each case.
Abductions, even when committed by a parent, can prove traumatic.
Therefore, the Office of Victim Advocate in Pennsylvania allows you to search missing persons records, both of persons reported missing to the police and also unidentified victims.
It is important to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible when someone you know and love goes missing.
You can also search the Pennsylvania Crime Stoppers database for information.
Searching for your own driving records because you want to know if your insurance company is quoting you a fair price?
Or you want to know what information is on your record for employment purposes?
Visit the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (DOT) website for information on driving records.
Many employers in the state of Pennsylvania have the right to access your driving record for safety purposes.
If you are an employer in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, you are obliged to check the driving records of potential employees when the job description entails any commercial driving.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation also maintains records of vehicles registered and licensed in the state.
You can request information about a vehicle licensed and registered in the state, but this information is not always considered a public record.
You may want information about a vehicle registered in Pennsylvania when you are buying or selling a car, truck, or motorcycle.
Alternatively, this information may be asked of you for insurance purposes or if you have been requested to submit this type of information as part of a pending court case.
What Does the Pennsylvania Driving Record Include?
Information contained on the Pennsylvania driving record includes all traffic violations and vehicular accidents within a certain time frame, but not necessarily the “points” you have accumulated on your driving license.
Please note that if you need a certified copy of the Pennsylvania driving record history, you must apply for this information in person and not online through the Department of Transportation website.
Property Records in Pennsylvania
As with most states, Pennsylvania does not maintain a statewide property records database.
This can make searching for property records in Pennsylvania difficult but this guide will help you locate property records by county.
However, you may need access to public property records in Pennsylvania when you are buying or selling property, doing research on a prospective property, or investigating property as part of a will or trust.
Each county in Pennsylvania will maintain property records pertaining to that particular county.
What counts as property records in Pennsylvania?
Property records include mortgages, deeds, liens, easements, and anything else that might impact the value or status of a property.
You may also need to search for specific information such as foreclosure status on your property or a property you intend to purchase.
Otherwise, each county in Pennsylvania as an Assessment Office that will have information related to property tax records.
If you are searching for historical property records in the state of Pennsylvania, however, you may be able to find what you are looking for through the Pennsylvania State Archives.
The GIS and mapping directories can also help with your search for property records in Pennsylvania.
Unclaimed Property in Pennsylvania
Sometimes people forget about bank accounts they have not been using for years, including safety deposit boxes.
Similarly, people forget about uncashed checks, wages, insurance policies, stocks and bonds.
Whenever property like this is unclaimed, the Pennsylvania Treasury department holds that property until the funds are rightfully claimed.
Unclaimed property may be in your name, or it may be in the name of an immediate relative, living or deceased.
It always pays to search for unclaimed property in your name or the name of an immediate relative.
While unclaimed property does not include real estate and other items, it does include potentially valuable resources that may belong to you or your family.
Wills and Probate
As with property records in Pennsylvania, wills and probate are generally conducted at the county level.
Probate records are a type of court record, and you can search for probate records also by county.
For example, you can conduct a search for a probate record in Lancaster County.
Vital records are among the most important types of public records in Pennsylvania.
One of the most common public records searches, vital records include the official recording of momentous events like births, marriages, divorces, deaths, and adoptions.
These may seem like private records, and they are, but they are also considered public records because they allow the government to compile valuable information related to public health.
For this reason, vital records in the State of Pennsylvania are maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
However, not all vital records are considered public records in the sense that anyone for any reason is legally allowed to access them.
To protect your privacy as a citizen, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has the discretion to reveal information when it is deemed relevant or necessary.
You can search for your own vital records, and may need to offer proper identification to do so.
Vital records may be required for a number of different purposes.
For example, you may need to provide a copy of your birth certificate when applying for your passport or a new driver’s license, or even for some jobs.
You may also need a copy of your vital records when you are applying for a residency permit or citizenship in another country.
If you are applying for membership in a professional organization you may be asked to provide vital records.
Born in Pennsylvania?
You, your attorney, and your immediate relatives can request a copy of your birth certificate.
You will make your request to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and it will cost $20 for the copy.
You must also be able to prove that you are the individual requesting the birth certificate.
You can search for adoption records in Pennsylvania through the Department of Health.
Marriage and Divorce Records
The best way to search for either divorce or marriage records in the state of Pennsylvania is through the VitalChek system.
The government uses the VitalChek system to make it easier for you to find these types of vital records
You can search for death certificates on the VitalChek system, or you can go directly to the Pennsylvania Department of Health website.
Death certificates may be called for in legal cases involving wills and probate, or for insurance or social security purposes.
As with birth certificates, only immediate family members and those with power of attorney can successfully receive a copy of a Pennsylvania death certificate.
Hopefully this guide makes your search for public records in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania easier.
It is your right to search the public record and to receive copies of public records.
Searching for public records like court records, arrest and criminal records, and driving records is easier than you think.
Remember, a democracy cannot function without freedom of information and government transparency. So exercise your right to information today!