Table of Contents
- 1What Are Public Records?
- 2Public Record Laws in Washington
- 3Why Search Public Records in Washington?
- 4Background Checks / Criminal History
- 5Jail Records
- 6Court Records
- 7Sex Offender Records
- 8Missing Persons
- 9Driving Records
- 10Property Records
- 11Unclaimed Property
- 12Voter Registration
- 13Vital Records
- 13.1Birth Records
- 13.2Marriage Certificates
- 13.3Divorce Decrees
- 13.4Death Certificates
- 13.5Wills and Probate
Washington—the Evergreen State—follows in the footsteps of the federal Freedom of Information Act to give you access to public records.
Residents of the Evergreen State can search any type of public record, from the minutes of a community meeting to criminal background checks. In fact, you have a legal right to search public records in Washington, including those that contain your own personal information.
However, finding public records in Washington can be tricky if you don’t know what you are doing. Different government agencies keep different types of records, and some records are not held at the state level at all but by local officials or agencies.
Some information is considered public record, to be released for whatever reason to any applicant. However, not all information held in or by government agencies is considered public record and may be protected for reasons like privacy protection or public safety.
This guide will help you:
- Locate different types of public records in Washington.
- Understand what you need to perform a successful public records search
- Distinguish between different types of public records.
- Conduct public records searches quickly and efficiently.
You may need to do some preliminary information yourself to locate specific records. In some cases, you might need to provide proof of identification in order to access restricted or sensitive information about a person’s history.
You can begin to learn more about what you need to do for a successful public records search by understanding how the state defines public records.
What Are Public Records?
First, it helps to understand what constitutes public records in the State of Washington.
In Washington RCW 42.56.010, a public record is defined as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.”
So what does this mean?
It means that in the State of Washington, any information that is created or maintained in a government agency is considered public record.
When the law mentions any information in writing, it is not necessarily restricting public records to verbal documents. The public record may also include digital documents, images, maps, and other multimedia data. For example, official maps and geological surveys may be included as public record.
When most people search for public records in Washington, they are looking for things like court cases, legislative proceedings, or criminal background checks on themselves or another person.
Public records also include:
- Vital Records (birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates)
- Court Records (criminal cases, civil cases, appeals, probate court cases, but usually not juvenile court records)
- Arrest Records
- Property Records
- Jail and Inmate Records
School transcripts and education records, and personal employment records are not considered public records. Similarly, your personal financial data is not public record.
The state takes violations of your privacy seriously, just as it also works hard to guarantee freedom of information.
Although some business records do become public records, you generally cannot access any trade secrets. If a private enterprise is engaged in any business that would impact public health or safety, though, that information might become public record.
You can request any information, but if that information is exempt from public records laws, your request may be denied in writing.
The Public Records Act clarifies what is and is not a public record in Washington and how to dispute a denial of information.
Public Record Laws in Washington
Washington State has a Public Records Act.
The Public Records Act shows you what you can access in detail, from property records to healthcare records.
Because the State does try and balance the interests of open government with protecting your privacy, there are also cases in which a request to access records will be denied.
Washington State law also covers issues related to protecting your privacy.
The Washington Public Records Act covers everything, including how the government protects your privacy while at the same time ensuring freedom of information.
The Public Records Act also explicitly outlines the instances in which public records may not be released, such as to protect a person’s privacy or to protect national security.
If you are concerned about any legal issues related to public records in the state of Washington, read the Public Records Act.
The State of Washington also has Chapter 10.97 RCW, or the Criminal Records Privacy Act.
This legislation offers additional rules pertaining to arrest and criminal history. For example, the Criminal Records Privacy Act specifies that in order to become public record, there must have been a conviction.
However, if an arrest or even prosecution did not lead to a conviction, then the criminal history is no longer considered public record.
The Criminal Records Privacy Act protects you from unwanted intrusion on your privacy, and prevents employers from discriminating against people on the basis of their arrest history.
In fact, the Criminal Records Privacy Act also includes a provision whereby all background check searches are recorded. That means that when you conduct a background check on anyone, that search becomes public record! The reason for this provision is to further prevent discriminatory conduct or misuse of information.
Why Search Public Records in Washington?
People in Washington search public records for any number of reasons, including the following:
- Research for a book, journalism, or any project
- Legal research
- Searching a job candidate’s criminal background
- Searching a job candidate’s prior driving record
- Searching a potential tenant’s criminal history
- Reviewing the details of a court case for an appeal
- Contesting a will
- Locating missing persons
- Verifying your voter information
- Checking property records like deeds or mortgages
- Finding an inmate in a Washington state prison or local jail
- Receiving a copy of your birth certificate
- Receiving a copy of your marriage certificate or divorce degree
- Locating and receiving unclaimed property that belongs to you
In many cases, you do not need to provide a reason for your search for public records. It is considered your right as a citizen of the state of Washington to access these records. This is true for many public records, including conviction records or public records such as legislative proceedings.
In some cases, though, you may have to prove that you are authorized to access the public record. This is usually true when searching for an individual’s criminal history, arrest record, or vital records. Unlike other states, though, Washington currently does not require you to provide any identifying information to obtain vital records.
You can request any information you want, but your request may be denied if you do not provide proper identification.
How Do I Find…
Background Checks / Criminal History
One of the most common public records searches in Washington is the criminal background check.
A background check refers to a criminal history record, and includes fingerprint-based records and other official law enforcement documentation in the state of Washington.
It is simple to request a criminal history or background check in Washington.
However, state and federal law have strict rules about what kind of information is available to employers, property owners, or anyone seeking access to criminal history.
You can go online, make a request by mail, or submit a request in person.
Submit a Request for a Criminal History Background Check Online
Using the Washington Access to Criminal History (WATCH) website, you can submit an online request easily with a credit card. There are small fees associated with different types of background checks.
Submit a Request for a Criminal History Background Check By Mail
If you prefer to use a written form to submit your request by mail, you can do so easily.
Print the Washington State Patrol check request form, fill it out, and submit the required fee.
To Submit a Criminal History Background Check Request in Person:
If you have the individual’s name and date of birth, or if you have the person’s fingerprints, you can submit a request to the Washington State Patrol in person.
Reasons for requesting a background check include any need to know, as criminal arrests and convictions that have occurred in the State of Washington are considered public record.
Employers may be able to access your criminal history, especially government employers.
Special industries like education, healthcare, childcare, and eldercare also allow access to an employee’s criminal history.
Any conviction is public record in Washington both to promote public safety and to promote freedom of information.
However, you will not be able to receive arrest records for which there was no conviction.
Juvenile records are also not considered public records in the state of Washington. In fact, juvenile records can be sealed and destroyed.
The Department of Corrections in Washington State maintains a database of all inmates currently serving time in a state correctional institution.
Why search the public records for inmates incarcerated in the State of Washington?
Victims often want to know where a perpetrator is serving time, and how much time is left on the sentence.
Family members and friends also frequently want to get in touch with someone in prison.
You can use an inmate search to locate records to help the individual with a legal appeal or to send money.
In fact, in the State of Washington you can also search for arrest warrants.
You may want to do that if someone you know many be a suspect or is wanted by the police for whatever reason.
If the individual is serving time in a county or municipal jail, rather than in a state prison, then the process of searching the public records is different.
You need to find out which county or locality the person is in, based on the jurisdiction of the case.
Using a list of counties in the State of Washington will help you narrow your search.
It is also helpful to search the court records in Washington when you want to find an inmate or someone whose charges are pending.
The Washington Courts maintain all proceedings as a matter of public record.
There are three levels of courts in the State of Washington: the Superior Courts, the Appellate Courts, and the District and Municipal Courts.
Superior Courts in Washington have general jurisdiction and include juvenile cases.
Each county in the State has a Superior Court, which hears both civil and criminal cases.
An appeal against a Superior Court case ruling is heard by the state’s Appellate Courts, which review the facts of the original case.
You can search for a case by court date, case number, or the name of the person or business who are parties to the case.
Local district and municipal courts, or county courts, hear minor cases such as those related to traffic violations.
If you do not yet know which jurisdiction applies to your case, you can refer to a list of courts, including trial courts, appellate courts, and specialized courts in the State of Washington.
Sex Offender Records
People in Washington sometimes search sex offender records because they are concerned about sex criminals being in their community.
Likewise, schools and other community organizations may search the sex offender records in order to be aware and maintain public safety.
Searching public sex offender records in Washington can be done for informational purposes but not to harass an individual.
In Washington, you need to search the sex offender records by county.
Alternatively, you may search the United States Department of Justice records.
The Washington State Patrol manages public records related to missing persons, including missing children.
To search for missing persons in the State of Washington, you must be an immediate family member or a member of law enforcement.
Only family members or law enforcement officials can access pictures of the children who are listed as missing in the state of Washington.
For a small fee, you can access your own driving records in Washington State.
You can access someone else’s driving records only if you have proper authorization to do so.
If your business has a legitimate need to conduct driving records checks on employees, then you can search for driving records in Washington.
Insurance companies and drug and alcohol treatment centers may also have access to your driving records in the State of Washington.
As in most states, property records are not held at the state level of government in Washington.
Property records may include deed and mortgage information as well as tax appraisal and assessor information.
Local or county governments maintain property records. This means you do need to first find out what county the property in question is located in and then conduct your search.
Search for property records by county in Washington.
The Washington State Department of Revenue holds and keeps unclaimed property.
Unclaimed property in Washington can include the following:
- Bank accounts
- Investment accounts including stocks, bonds, and mutual funds
- Safety deposit box contents
- Insurance policies
- Unclaimed deposits from utility companies or telecommunications companies
- Unclaimed wages or uncashed checks
- Unredeemed gift cards
However, homes, cars, and physical property are not considered unclaimed property and will not be held by the Department of Revenue.
Voter registration information is public record in the State of Washington.
You can search the Voter Registration Database, which is maintained by the Secretary of State.
Although it is forbidden to misuse the information, such as for marketing information, anyone can request a list of registered voters for political purposes.
Vital records refer to birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce decrees, and death certificates.
Although this is personal information, these are considered public records because they are critical for public health and information.
The State Department of Health therefore maintains all vital records compiled and maintained in the state. These records also include adoption records, and gender change records.
You may need vital records for a number of reasons. For example:
- You are changing your name
- You are getting married or divorced
- You are conducting genealogical research
- You are applying for a visa, residency, or citizenship in another country
- You are applying for professional licensing or certification
You do not need to provide identification, meaning anyone can access your vital records in Washington.
Births that took place and were recorded in Washington will be on public record. You can request copies of birth records—known as birth certificates—from the Department of Health.
Unlike other states, Washington does not demand that you provide identification for accessing these records, so you can request a birth certificate for anyone.
The Department of Public Health also maintains records of all marriages that took place in the state.
If you want to request a copy of a marriage record—known as a marriage certificate, you can contact the Department of Public Health.
Unlike other states, Washington does not demand that you provide identification for accessing these records, so you can request a marriage certificate for anyone.
The Department of Public Health also maintains records of divorces registered in the State of Washington.
Therefore, you can request a copy of a divorce certificate by contacting the Department of Public Health.
Unlike other states, Washington does not demand that you provide identification for accessing these records, so you can request a divorce certificate for anyone.
As with marriage, birth, and divorce certificates, death certificates can be ordered through the Washington Department of Public Health.
You can order a death certificate in person, online, or by mail or email.
Search for a death certificate online.
Unlike other states, Washington does not demand that you provide identification for accessing these records, so you can request a death certificate for anyone.
Wills and Probate
Generally, wills and probate issues are not settled at the state level but at the local or county level.
If you wish, you can try to locate records from the probate courts on the Washington Courts website.
However, you are more likely to have a successful search if you find out which county the probate was settled or where the will was filed.
For example, if the will was settled in Clark County, you would visit the Clark County Clerk website to search the public record.
The State of Washington has a relatively easy system for accessing public records.
Because freedom of information is so important to the functioning of the democracy, there are state and federal laws that guard your right to access public records.
For example, the federal Freedom of Information Act sets the standards for open government and transparency.
When you need to access information at the federal level, you would need to follow a different set of procedures, approaching the appropriate federal agency for the information you seek.
This guide has been designed to help you locate public records only within the state of Washington.
As with other states, Washington has its own state laws that dictate how its government agencies manage and maintain their public records.
The law ensures that state and local government agencies need to maintain records to uphold the tenets and principles of democracy, to ensure citizens like you can access information.