Are Florida Records Public?
Yes. According to the Florida Sunshine Law, most records generated by government entities are considered public. The law states that all persons have the right to access municipal, county, and state records. Residents are also free to inspect these records or obtain copies if preferred. The Sunshine Law defines public records as information created or received by a public agency and required to transact public business. Some requestable public records include criminal history records, court records, bankruptcy records, arrest records, sex offender information, vital records, criminal records and inmate records.
Florida's Sunshine Law protects the public's right to perform paid or free public data searches to obtain government records, regardless of a record's physical form, mode of transmission, or characteristics. Records may be documents, books, photographs, sound recordings, tapes, software, films, or other materials. The state's public record laws also specify that public access must not be hindered by the effort of any government agency to automate record access (Fla. Stat. § 119.01(2)(a)). Furthermore, agencies who choose to provide remote access to Florida public records must do so in the most efficient and cost-effective manner (Fla. Stat. § 119.01(2)(a)).
However, any individual that submits a public records act request in Florida must note that the state's public records are only receivable in the same format they are maintained. Florida law does not require public agencies to create or reclassify records, answer questions about maintained records, or convert records into formats that are not already available.
Who Can Access Florida Public Records?
Any individual may access public records in Florida. The state's statutes direct each agency to ensure that "any person" may inspect or copy all non-confidential public records in its custody (Fla. Stat. § 119.01(1)). Florida does not restrict access to public records or the ability to conduct background checks to residents or citizens.
Do I Need to State My Purpose When Requesting Public Records in Florida?
No. The Florida Sunshine Law does not require requesters to provide a statement of purpose or indicate any special interest. Interested requesters may obtain public records by submitting official requests and paying designated search or copy fees.
What is Exempted Under the Florida Public Records Law?
The Florida Sunshine Law provides several exemptions to public access and classifies them as general, executive branch, executive branch agency-specific, and local government agency exemptions. Examples of Florida exemptions to public access include:
- Active Criminal Intelligence or Criminal Investigative Information: Law enforcement agencies may not provide public access to intelligence or investigative records if the case is still active (Fla. Stat. § 119.071(2)(c)1). This exemption also covers inter-agency requests for records of active criminal intelligence or investigative information. However, the information on the record and the agency's request for the record should be available to the public immediately after the case is no longer active.
- Agency Administration Records: The Florida Sunshine Law protects a wide range of administrative records from public disclosure. Some of these records include exam questions and answer sheets administered by a government agency, sealed bids, and proposals. However, the law allows persons who took such examinations to review their records. Under Fla. Stat. § 119.071(2)(f), agencies must also restrict access to data processing software if the software is a trade secret or was obtained under a licensing agreement that hinders public disclosure.
Another example of an exempt agency administration record is a financial statement required for bidding. Members of the general public cannot access statements submitted by bidders looking to prequalify for a public works project.
- Security and Fire Safety Records: Security and fire safety records include all information relating to the physical safety of a facility. Under Fla. Stat. § 119.071(3)(1), threat assessment and response plans, sheltering arrangements, emergency evacuation plans, security manuals, and other records that reveal security information are exempt from public disclosure.
- Personal Information: Members of the general public may not access records that contain personal identifying information. Records that may interfere with a person's right to privacy or safety may be redacted or entirely exempted from public disclosure.
- Juvenile criminal records including arrest records
- Agency Personnel Records: While records created or maintained by public agencies are easily accessible, Fla. Stat. § 119.071(4) prevents access to agency personnel information. The general public may not obtain personal identifying information on current or former agency personnel, including social security numbers, telephone numbers, home addresses, photographs, and dates of birth, among others. This cover also extends to children, spouses, and dependents of current or former agency personnel.
- Health Records: Health records containing personal identifying information regarding a person's health are exempt according to Fla. Stat. § 119.0712(1). Custodians must also withhold information related to the person's eligibility for health-related services. However, Fla. Stat. § 119.0712(1) provides some exceptions to this rule. According to the law, the custodian may disclose such information:
- with the written consent of the person or a legal representative
- by court order, if there is good cause
- to a health research facility upon approval of and under supervision from the Florida Department of Health
- in a medical emergency, strictly to the extent required to protect life or health
- Other Restricted Records: Access to several Florida records may be restricted by law. For example, vital records. Under the law, access to birth records less than 100 years old is restricted to eligible parties. The law also restricts Florida death records showing the cause of death to the decedent's relatives.
- Restricted vital records such as certified marriage and divorce records
Members of the public must note that some public records may be available for inspection but not for copying. Although the Sunshine Law includes the right of access for both, custodians may deny requests to duplicate copyrighted material.
How Do I Find Public Records in Florida?
All interested persons may obtain Florida public records by sending official requests to the respective record custodians. According to Florida statutes, the official custodian at a Florida department or agency must permit requesters to copy or inspect records under the custodian's supervision (Fla. Stat. § 119.07(1)(a)). The following steps describe how to check for public records in Florida:
- Decide on the type of record
Each requester must first decide the type of information sought. Available public records may include sex offender information, inmate records, court records, and vital records, among others. Knowing what type of record is desired is necessary to guide the request process. For instance, individuals looking for information on incarcerated persons must request inmate records.
- Identify the relevant agency
Florida public records are created and maintained by different agencies. After deciding on the desired type of record, the requester must identify the relevant custodian agency. For instance, court records are available at the respective courts that hear the cases. For property records, the requester may contact the Property Appraiser of the county where the property is located.
In some cases, some public records may be obtainable from multiple agencies. For instance, Florida divorce records are available from the courts that heard each case and also from the Florida Department of Health.
- Make an official request
Custodians allow requesters to send applications for public records using different methods. Most public agencies allow physical requests and completed public request forms. Others may allow applicants to request over the phone, by fax, and online. Regardless of the preferred method, an official request for a public record should contain the following information:
- A specification on the type of record: This is important, especially if the agency maintains different types of records. For instance, a public record request to a sheriff’s department must state that the requester wants an arrest record, an accident report, or another type that the sheriff’s office handles.
- A description of the record, including names, dates, and other information on the record. The requester may also include other details that may help the custodian find the record
- The requester’s full name and contact details
- Means of identification (if required for the request)
- Payment in the amount and method preferred by the agency
- Delivery details
Submit the request
Requesters must submit applications as specified by the agency. Custodians usually allow submissions using varying methods, including mail, fax, phone, or online. In some cases, online requests are free of charge. Generally, Florida law does not require that record requests be in writing.
Requesters should note that certified copies of Florida public records may be unavailable online. Usually, custodians may only entertain in-person and mail requests for certified copies and may add requirements such as a government-issued ID. When submitting a request, the record seeker must follow the agency's instructions for submission or risk delay or dismissal.
Using Third-Party Sites to Find Public Records in Florida
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 opt to 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
Third-party sites are not sponsored by government agencies. Because of this, record availability and results may vary.
How Much Do Public Records Cost in Florida?
The Florida Sunshine Law provides varying fees for public records, depending on the request method. For instance, state laws allow Florida custodians to charge fees for remote electronic access to cover the direct and indirect costs of providing such access (Fla. Stat. § 119.07(2)(c)).
To provide physical plain or certified copies, agencies must only charge requesters as prescribed by law. Where the law does not specify charges, the following fees apply:
- A maximum of 15 cents per one-sided copy nor larger than 14 inches by 8.5 inches
- Not more than 5 additional cents per two-sided copy
- The actual cost of duplication - for all other copy sizes
How Do I Look Up Public Records in Florida for Free?
Most Florida agencies charge varying fees to produce copies of desired public records. The state also does not provide any general fee exemptions or waivers to requesters. However, a record seeker looking for free public records searches may consider submitting a request for inspection instead of requesting physical copies. Inspecting records for free typically requires the requester to visit the custodian (for example, a county clerk's office) to use a provided computer terminal or a public records library.
Interested persons may also look up public records for free online. Some Florida agencies maintain online databases where parties may obtain public records at no cost. For instance, the Florida Supreme Court provides a free online docket to access non-confidential petitions, briefs, dispositional orders, and referee reports. The public can also find free information on registered sex offenders on the Florida Sexual Offender Registry. Furthermore, county recorder’s offices (which also perform clerk of court duties) provide online databases to retrieve deeds, judgments, financial statements, and other available official records.
What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?
An individual who carries out a public data search and is denied access to a record in Florida must first understand the reason for the denial. The Sunshine Law states that state government agencies that deny a public records request must state the reason for the denial and include a statutory citation (Fla. Stat. § 119.07(1)(e)). If the agency does not state a reason, the denied requester can request one.
If the denial does not meet statutory requirements, the requester can start a civil action in court. According to state laws, the court will set an immediate hearing and prioritize the case over pending cases (Fla. Stat. § 119.11(1)). If the court agrees that the denial is unlawful, it will order the agency to provide access to the record within 48 hours.
How to Remove Names From Public Search Records?
Persons looking to remove their names from Florida public records may consider legal options available under the state public records act or other applicable laws. However, this process is complex and may be impossible in some cases. Removing a name from Florida public records may involve sealing or expunging the record—a process that may vary by record type. For instance, the process of sealing or expunging a court record may differ from the process required for a bankruptcy record. Where sealing or expungement is possible, state law may provide varying requirements that the requester must meet to be eligible. For example, Florida persons convicted of offenses such as arson, aggravated battery, or murder cannot seal or expunge their records.
What is the Best Public Records Search Database?
The best public records search database differs according to the desired type of record. Records obtainable under the Florida public records act are available in different databases, as provided by the custodial local or state government agencies.
For instance, requesters interested in a Miami-Dade County public record could use the county's online public records portal. Additionally, the Broward County Clerk of Courts provides a case search platform where interested persons can search for non-confidential court records by party name, case number, business name, and citation. There is also a Broward County public records search platform for a wide range of county records. In the same way, the best public records search database for Hillsborough County inmate information is the arrest inquiry search page provided by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
How Long Does It Take to Obtain a Florida Public Record?
The Florida Sunshine Law does not specify a response time for Florida public records act requests. However, state laws specify that the custodian must acknowledge requests promptly and respond in good faith (Fla. Stat. § 119.07(c)). The law further describes a good-faith response as reasonably applying effort to determine a record's existence and location.
Requesters should note that public requests for partly confidential records may stretch the response time. This is because the law allows custodians to determine whether an exemption applies to a part of the record and redact such confidential portions before allowing individuals to access public information maintained therein.
Other factors that may affect response time include request method and clarity. For instance, some state or local agencies may produce same-day results for in-person requests, an option that may be unavailable for mail requests. Furthermore, requests that do not adequately describe the desired records may receive delayed responses.
Is Public Data Search Safe?
Yes. Florida public records kept by local and state government agencies, such as law enforcement agencies, are obtainable under the Florida public records act. Therefore, it is acceptable for people to use paid or free public data search services to locate Florida public documents.
Conducting a public data search in Florida is generally a risk-free activity. However, individuals should ensure not to use a public record illicitly, as that may induce legal repercussions.