Table of Contents
- 1What Are Public Records?
- 2Public Records Laws in Virginia
- 3Why Search for Public Records?
- 4Criminal Records and Background Checks
- 5Jail, Prison, and Inmate Records
- 6Court Records
- 7Sex Offender Records
- 8Missing Person Records
- 9Driving Records
- 10Voter Registration Records
- 11Will and Probate Records
- 12Unclaimed Property Records
- 13Vital Records
- 13.1Birth Certificates
- 13.2Marriage Certificates
- 13.3Divorce Decrees
- 13.4Death Certificates
In a free and open society, access to government records is considered a basic civil right. Accessing public records in the Commonwealth of Virginia has never been easier with online access to many of the state’s government agencies and service providers.
This guide will help you understand more about your rights in seeking public records in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
If you are looking for public records such as court documents or legislative proceedings, or jut want a copy of your birth certificate or driving record, you have come to the right place.
When seeking access to public records in the Commonwealth of Virginia, you do need to know where to look and what records you can hope to find.
State and federal freedom of information laws protect your right to access public records. However, you still need to know which government agencies hold which public records.
You also need to know how to search for and receive the public records you need from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
What Are Public Records?
Almost any document, file, image, or archive that is created, stored, or maintained by a government agency—an agency funded by taxpayer money—is considered a public record.
This may include the proceedings of legislative meetings or court cases in jury trials.
Public records also refer to criminal records, prison records, or records related to missing persons cases.
Your birth certificate and marriage certificate are also types of public records, which, while they may not be readily accessible to anyone, can be accessed with the appropriate identification.
The government creates and maintains records that have a direct bearing on your life as a citizen. In a democracy, the people are the government. For this reason, the federal government and the state government in Virginia have laws that mandate that government agencies create specific types of official records and make those records available upon request to the public.
Public Records Laws in Virginia
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act is one of the state’s most important piece of legislation related to open government and accessing public records.
The Virginia Public Records Act also outlines the specific obligations the government has to you as a citizen.
Both of these laws follow in the spirit of the federal Freedom of Information Act.
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, you have access to an abundance of public records, except for those that would compromise public safety or infringe on the rights of other people.
If you are worried about your privacy, that too is covered in the freedom of information laws. Rest assured that sensitive information such as your credit history will not be considered public records.
Why Search for Public Records?
According to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, some public records are to be available to the public upon request no matter what the reason.
Most people search for public records for specific reasons.
One of the most common reasons for searching public records is to conduct background checks on prospective employees.
A background check refers to accessing public records related to a person’s criminal history.
Some, but not all, employers may be permitted to search your criminal history when you apply for a job. Generally, the employer will also need your consent to access your criminal history.
Government agencies may also be authorized to search the public record regarding your criminal or even credit history.
If you are applying for a professional license or state board certification for professions like education or psychology, you may also be asked to submit to a background check.
Another common request for public records is for birth certificates, marriage certificates, or divorce decrees. Known collectively as vital records, these types of records may be required when you are applying for a name change, for a visa or citizenship to another country, or for changing your current marital status.
Similarly, you may need to receive a copy of a death certificate for legal or insurance purposes or to settle a disputed estate.
While personal wills are not necessarily considered public records in the Commonwealth of Virginia, if the will is contested and enters into a probate court, those probate court records become public records.
Searching for court records is common for people who want to learn more about a specific case or to file their own appeal.
How to Find…
Criminal Records and Background Checks
Employers, property owners, and professional license or certification boards common request you to submit to a background check.
Also known as a criminal background check or criminal history, this entails an account of any criminal convictions in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
A background check in the Commonwealth of Virginia will usually not include arrest records, which may be sought by law enforcement agencies or other parties with legitimate claim but not the general public.
Authorized government agencies seeking access to arrest records would need to submit the person’s fingerprint data.
Most requests for criminal records are for convictions, the reason being that a person is legally innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and an employer or a landowner is not allowed to discriminate against anyone simply on the grounds that they had been arrested for something.
Anti-discrimination laws still do prevent employers or landowners from discriminating against people on the basis of their criminal history, but in the Commonwealth of Virginia you do need to formally expunge your criminal record or else they will be available to authorized parties upon request.
Note this is the form used for non-government agencies seeking access to a person’s criminal history records in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
With the inmate’s permission, you can also access the criminal history of a person currently serving time or who is on active parole in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Jail, Prison, and Inmate Records
Another common public records request in the Commonwealth of Virginia is for prison or inmate records.
People seek prison records to find out about a friend or loved one currently serving a sentence in Virginia, or to send money.
You may want to know how much time is left on a person’s sentence.
Victims also have a right to know about the status of an offender.
Therefore, the Virginia Department of Corrections allows you to search the database of any offender serving time in a state penitentiary: part of the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Judicial systems in every state are divided into tiers and jurisdictions. Searching for court records in the Commonwealth of Virginia, as with anywhere else, does require a little background information or knowledge of the way the court system works,
If you are seeking court records, it will help if you first find out in which court the case was heard.
In Virginia, the State Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are state-level.
The vast majority of court cases are heard in the General District Court and the Circuit Court systems. Virginia also has Juvenile Courts, probate courts, and other courts with limited or specialized jurisdictions.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has streamlined the process for searching court records.
You can search for many court records through the Virginia Judicial System website.
For example, you can search for Circuit Court Cases.
You can search for state Supreme Court cases.
Searching court records can be fairly straightforward, with exceptions to freedom of information mainly based on the need to protect the public or preserve essential attorney-client privileges.
You may want to search for court records for research purposes or when compiling evidence for your own appeal.
Sex Offender Records
As with many states, the Commonwealth of Virginia has laws mandating the creation of a sex offender registry.
Members of the public are entitled to search the sex offender registry in the interests of freedom of information, as well as public safety.
It is against the law to abuse the information found in the sex offender registry, or to harass anyone listed in the sex offender registry.
However, requests for public records related to convicted sex offenders are common in Virginia.
Schools, parents, and members of the community have a right to know about the presence of convicted sex offenders in their neighborhood, or in a neighborhood they are considering moving to in the future. For whatever reasons, you can access the Virginia sex offender registry for information.
Missing Person Records
When persons—adults or children—go missing or have been abducted and an official police report is filed, the information becomes part of the public record.
You can search public records for information about missing persons, including the police reports, or to find out any additional information about the case.
When someone does go missing in the State of Virginia, it does help to stay posted with new information by accessing the Virginia State Police records.
Requests for driving records are also common in the state of Virginia.
The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will issue you a copy of your own personal driving history and driving records, covering the last eleven years.
For other interested parties, the information included in the driving record will be limited according to the law.
Employers, as well as military and government organizations, can search for driving records but only upon request of the person on the record.
Why search for driving records? If you seek your own personal driving record, you do not need a reason. Perhaps you are simply curious about what the record says so that you are prepared to answer any questions posed to you by employers. Alternatively, you may want to see your record for insurance purposes, such as to dispute a rise in your premiums.
Employers, government agencies, and others may want to see a copy of your driving record for safety related issues.
Of course, if you are applying for a job that involves driving, it would be expected that you release information about your driving history.
Voter Registration Records
If you recently moved to the Commonwealth of Virginia and need to know whether you are registered to vote in your new precinct, or where to go to cast your ballot, you would need to visit the Virginia Department of Elections website.
In addition to offering a Virginia Citizen Portal where you can manage, update, or change your information, or sign up for an absentee ballot, you can also access your own personal voting history.
To access your voter registration information in Virginia, or wish to apply for an absentee ballot, you can use this form on the Virginia Department of Elections website.
The Virginia Department of Elections releases information to you, but does not release any personal information to third parties to protect your privacy. Therefore, you do not need to worry that your employer will be able to check your past voting history.
Any time your address changes, even when you are in the same basic neighborhood, it is a good idea to check with the Virginia Department of Elections to update your information so that you receive all your information and so that you are properly registered to vote.
Voting is the most important exercise of your rights as citizen.
Will and Probate Records
A personal will holds legal muster when it is processed through probate court, which in Virginia means the county circuit court.
Virginia Circuit Courts handle the probate cases, so you would need to use this list of all Virginia Circuit Courts before you seek the probate records.
People often seek probate records for genealogical research, but many people also need to access probate records when there is a dispute regarding a will.
Wills are not public record, but probate records are court records and are therefore considered public.
Unclaimed Property Records
When a person forgets about dormant bank accounts, unclaimed deposits paid to public utilities companies, or objects in safety deposit boxes, the unclaimed property or cash, the Virginia Department of the Treasury assumes temporary responsibility.
The Virginia Department of the Treasury manages the unclaimed property until the rightful owner—or rightful heir—comes forth to claim the cash or property.
Unclaimed property does not include real estate, but can include tangible items kept in a safety deposit box.
Unclaimed property can also include stocks, bonds, and related dividends. It can also include insurance payouts or wages that were owed from the person’s employer.
Not just anyone can claim the property; otherwise there would be no more unclaimed property. Rather, you do need to prove that you are the rightful owner or claimant.
In some cases, businesses have unclaimed property. If you can prove you were the business owner or the direct heir thereof, you can also lay claim to the unclaimed property belonging to a business.
By far one of the most common requests for public records is for birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, and the like.
Collectively known as vital records, these types of records are public but they are not accessible to the general public.
In other words, they are government documents that the claimant can access with the correct identification. To protect your privacy, though, the Virginia Department of Health will not release your vital records to unauthorized parties.
If you are searching for archived vital records for genealogical research dating back a hundred years or more, then you would use a different system, still available through the Virginia Department of Health.
For vital records in Virginia from the last one hundred years, search the Department of Health.
Note that there are fees for processing the requests and receiving copies of the vital records.
Also note that not all of the copies you receive will be certified. If you have been asked for a certified copy of any one of the vital records (birth certificate, marriage certificate, divorce certificate, or death certificate), then you will need to use this form to request certification.
You will need to provide proof of your identity when applying for any of the following vital records from the Virginia Department of Health.
The Virginia Department of Health keeps track of birth records that occur throughout the state. One of the reasons why the Department of Health maintains records like these is for population health studies, and to provide information related to public health.
Anyone born in the state of Virginia will have on file with the Department of Health a public record and it will include a birth certificate.
You may need to submit a copy of your birth certificate when you are applying for a name change, or a residency permit to another country. There are actually a number of reasons why you will need a copy of your birth certificate, which you can easily order online through the Virginia Department of Health.
Search the Virginia Department of Health database for your birth certificate and to request a copy.
The Department of Health also uses a third party system used by most other states called VitalChek.
Using the VitalChek system, you can submit payment online.
If you are looking for a copy of your marriage certificate, you will also need to have proof of your identification when submitting the request to the Virginia Department of Health.
You may need a copy of your marriage license to request a formal name change, for example.
The Department of Health maintains the marriage records of all marriages that were officiated within the Commonwealth of Virginia.
To receive a copy of your marriage certificate, you can use the VitalChek system and pay the appropriate fee.
You will also need to supply the necessary information or proof of identification, as needed.
You can also receive a copy of a divorce degree or divorce record through the Virginia Department of Health.
Unlike other states, Virginia maintains all vital records in one place, instead of keeping divorce records solely within the court system.
This makes it much easier for you to get remarried or to prove that you are no longer married for legal purposes.
Use the VitalChek system to receive official copies of a divorce certificate in Virginia.
Many people need copies of death certificates, but in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the only people authorized to receive an official copy of the death certificate are the immediate family members or the beneficiaries.
You can use the VitalChek system to apply for the death certificate, or you can apply for this and any other vital record by mail or in person to the Virginia Department of Health.
Death certificates and other vital records will not be issued to anyone who is unauthorized. When applying to the Department of Health, be sure to understand who has legal access to these vital records.
This guide has provided you with important information related to how to find public records in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The Commonwealth of Virginia was one of the original thirteen colonies. Since its inception, the state has remained committed to the principles of democracy and that includes open government.
Open government entails having freedom of information. Citizens have a right to know what is going on in their government, and to know what records the government keeps of the people.
When you seek public records, you empower yourself with information and exercise your right as a citizen.
Whether you are searching for vital records or records on a prospective tenant or employee, you have the right to access public records in Virginia.