Are Texas Records Public?
Yes. In compliance with the Texas Public Information Act (PIA), Texas records are open to the public. Any information generated, gathered, filed, or preserved by county governments, city governments, and public agencies in connection with official business is considered public. Public records may also include information collected by certain private entities or non-profit organizations that receive government funding.
Members of the public may conduct paid or free public data searches through record custodians to view, inspect, or get copies of these government-generated documents. Public records in Texas may be written, typed, photographed, taped, recorded digitally, or transmitted electronically. Regardless of the form in which the information is stored, persons can submit public records act requests to access Texas public records as long as the document - or information therein - is not confidential or exempted by law. Examples of Texas public records include:
- Public sex offender information
- Public crime statistics
- Public Texas inmate records
- Public court records
- Public vital records, such as Texas divorce records, Texas death records, Texas marriage certificates/licenses, or Texas birth certificates
- Public criminal records
- Public Texas police reports
However, not all government-generated records are subject to public disclosure. Some documents have discretionary disclosure, while other information or records may fall under statutory exemptions from public access.
Who Can Access Texas Public Records?
Any person can access public records in Texas - this includes persons obtaining records for personal purposes and those carrying out background checks for official reasons - except in situations where the information is confidential or disclosure is prohibited by law (Texas Government Code, Section 552.007). This means residents and non-residents have the right to inspect or request copies of nonexempt information or records maintained by government bodies and other agencies. Record custodians are compelled to provide access under Texas Government Code, Section 552. However, custodians may restrict access to exempted records and certain documents with confidential information, especially when requesters do not have valid claims or interests in the file.
Do I Need to State My Purpose When Requesting Public Records in Texas?
No. Requesters are not required by law to provide the purpose of requesting records when seeking to inspect or get copies of public records in Texas. According to Section 552.222 of the Texas Government Code, record custodians may not inquire how the requester will use the information.
What is Exempted Under the Texas Public Record Law?
Although the Texas Public Information Act grants interested persons access to public information, it also includes provisions or exemptions that allow record custodians to restrict access to some documents or parts of a government-generated record. These exemptions may permit partial or full restriction according to statutory mandates or at the custodian's discretion. For instance, specific information like Social Security Number may be deemed confidential by law and redacted from copies given to the public. A governmental body may also withhold entire information like attorney-client communications at its discretion.
Exempted records include:
- Confidential information: This information falls under exempted information if there is any law, statute, or judicial decision that requires the confidentiality of such information
- Certain personnel records: Texas Public Information Act (Section 552.102) requires the confidentiality of information in a personnel file that may constitute a violation of personal privacy if disclosed to the public, excluding the record subject or designated representative (if the subject is an employee of a governmental body).
- Litigation or settlement negotiations concerning the state of Texas or a political subdivision: This includes information relating to any pending civil or criminal litigation that involves or may involve the state, a political subdivision, or an employee of either.
- Ongoing competition or bidding information: Section 552.104 of the Texas Government Code prevents the disclosure of information that would harm the interests of a government body or give an unfair advantage to a bidder or competitor in a competitive situation.
- Certain information concerning real or personal property: Real estate appraisals, purchase prices, or locations fall exempt before the formal award of a contract or the project's public announcement
- Certain legislative documents like working papers or drafts for preparing proposed legislation and internal bill analysis or working papers created to evaluate proposed legislation
- Documents of legal matters restricted from disclosure by court order or due to a duty to the client as per the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct or Texas Rules of Evidence
- Law enforcement, prosecutorial, and corrections information as per Sections 552.108, 552.1081, and 552.1085 of the Texas Government Code
- Private communications or correspondence of an elected officeholder regarding issues that would constitute a violation of personal privacy if disclosed to the public
- Trade secrets and some financial or commercial information
- Proprietary information as per Section 552.1101 of the Texas Government Code
- Intra-agency or inter-agency memoranda or letters
- Information regarding the supervision or regulation of financial institutions or securities
- Geological or geophysical information
- Student or education records
- Private birth and death records
- Audit working papers
- Confidential information like social security numbers, telephone numbers, addresses, and personal family information
- Photographs and other personally identifying information of peace officers, hospital district employees/officers, and other government personnel who undertake sensitive duties - when disclosure may endanger their lives or security
- Personal contact details and other sensitive information maintained by the State Bar or related to the humane disposition of animals
- Official prescription program information
- Certain original manuscripts, rare books, and other documents held for historical research
- Personal information of a neighborhood crime watch member
- Test items created by a state-funded educational institution, licensing agency, or a governmental body
- Identity of applicants for CEO of an institution of higher education or superintendent of a public school district until the governing body provides public notice of finalists
- Identifying information of a private donor who gives money, gifts, or property directly or indirectly to an institution of higher education
- Record of a library or library system supported in any way by public funds
- Audits deemed privilege information under Section 552.1101 of the Texas Government Code
- Submitted information by a potential contractor or vendor concerning an application for certification as a historically underutilized or disadvantaged business, except as provided in Section 552.129 of the Texas Government Code
- The information recorded during a motor vehicle emissions inspection and other motor vehicle records exempted under Section 552.130 of the Texas Government Code
- Economic development information concerning negotiations between a governmental body and a business prospect
- Crime victim or claimant information unless provided under Section 552.132(d) of the Texas Government Code
- Certain information in a crime victim impact statement that may identify the crime victim or disclose contact details
- The competitive matters of a public power utility that may give an advantage to current or prospective competitors
- Certain inmate information under Section 552.134 of the Texas Government Code
- Certain information maintained by the school district
- Debit card, charge card, credit card, and access device numbers
- Certain email addresses
- Information maintained about a family violence shelter center, sexual assault program, and victims of trafficking shelter center
- Government information about computer security issues
- Military discharge records
- Information in a marriage license application and documents submitted with the application
- Certain vital records. Section 552.115 exempts birth and death records from public disclosure until a set period lapses. For birth records, this period is 75 years from the date indicated on the record, whereas death records have a 25-year waiting period from the date of the subject's death
- Records subject to order of nondisclosure
- Certain investment information
- Drafts, notes, and electronic communications of judges at the State Office of Administrative Hearings
- Texas No-Call list
- All forms of communication between the lieutenant governor or legislator and an assistant or a Legislative Budget Board employee
- Social Security Numbers
- Photographs and personally identifiable information maintained by a municipality concerning a minor
- Comptroller's or appraisal district's records received from a private body
- Information regarding select agents
- Identity of applicants for the role of chief audit executive, executive director, or chief investment officer of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas
- Property tax appraisal photographs
- Continuity of operations plan as per Section 552.156 of the Texas Government Code
- Personal details about applicants for appointment by the governor
- Work schedules of certain emergency service personnel
- Certain personal information obtained by the Flood Control District
- Certain information supplied by an out-of-state health care provider
- Personal details of disaster recovery funds applicants
Note: The Texas Public Information Act supports the provision of exempted records to some agencies and individuals under certain circumstances. Therefore, eligible persons with valid interests or claims may still access these documents.
How Do I Find Public Records in Texas?
In line with the Texas Public Information Act, government bodies in Texas grant access to public records online or upon request made by interested persons. Typically, individuals can find and get copies of public records (for example, public vital records) in Texas by following these quick steps:
1. Determine the type of record needed and record custodian
Before making a request, interested persons need to identify what record or type of information is needed. Determining this will further help persons know which Texas department has custody of the record and how to request it. For instance, persons who wish to obtain an arrest report must know which law enforcement agency made the arrest, and individuals interested in court records must know which court the case was filed in. Persons may also decide the specific information needed with respect to the number of pages or the particular period covered by the record.
2. Establish availability of record
Persons should determine if the required record or information is public or confidential according to the law. In some cases, interested persons may also contact the custodian to determine how to access the needed information. Some government bodies may specify how to do a public record search or request on their website and provide online or downloadable request forms. Lastly, some records like court dockets or sex offender information may be available online, and persons may not need to make formal requests.
3. Make a request
After determining how to access public records in Texas, persons may continue by making requests if online access is not available or required. Interested individuals may request in person, via mail, or through other channels. In-person requests may require requesters to take along valid identification or a previously filled form downloaded from the custodian's page. Otherwise, the requester may fill out request forms in person. The requester may need to provide the following details in the form before submitting it in person:
- Record type
- Specific record descriptions like record subject's name, case number, and related dates
- Requester's name and contact details
- Other specifications on certifying documents, maximum cost available for search, and so on
- Preferred delivery method
- Mailing address, fax number, or email address for record delivery
For mailed requests, requesters may also use request forms or write a request letter containing this necessary information and mail it to the appropriate address along with required fees or other supporting documents, such as a photocopy of a valid ID or consent letter. The same applies to requests made online, via email, or by fax.
The time needed to process requests often varies depending on the medium used to make the request. Some custodians provide same-day services to requesters who make requests in person or pay for expedited requests via mail (for an extra charge).
4. Pay fees
Requesters may pay fees with the request or after the custodian sends confirmation mail approving the request and specifying the amount needed to search for or duplicate the record. Requesters should note that while custodians are allowed to charge service fees for record search or duplication as per Section 552.156 of the Texas Government Code, the charges should not exceed the standard fee structure. Requesters should make payments through the platforms accepted by the custodian.
Using Third-Party Sites to Find Public Records in Texas
Public city 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 will need to 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.
Public records can also be accessed from third-party websites. These third-party public records aggregate websites offer search services that are non-geographically limited, making the search result expansive and typically straightforward. However, users will need to provide enough information to assist with the search, such as:
- The name of the subject involved in the record as long as the subject is not a juvenile
- The last known or location of the record subject
Third-party public records search websites are not government-sponsored services. Therefore, the availability and accuracy of results can vary.
How Much Do Public Records Cost in Texas?
Costs of public records vary according to the request type. Viewing or inspecting public records in Texas does not usually cost any money unless in cases where extensive searches are needed and the custodian charges for labor used in preparing the documents. According to Section 552.261 of the Texas Government Code, record custodians may charge requesters for costs of materials, labor, or overhead expenses in duplicating documents, depending on the number of pages required.
If the requested record does not exceed 50 pages and is available in the same building or storage facility, charges may not include the cost of labor, materials, or overhead fees. Instead, the custodian will only charge per page of photocopy. Furthermore, if charges exceed $40, the custodian shall give a detailed, itemized statement on the record's estimated costs and a notice on an alternative, less costly means of obtaining the information, if available.
How Do I Look Up Public Records in Texas for Free?
In Texas, persons can usually view or inspect paper records for free, especially if the pages are few and there is no confidential information requiring redacting. However, obtaining physical copies of documents comes with charges on most occasions. The ability to carry out free public record searches in Texas depends on the record type and the government body responsible for maintaining records and disseminating requested information. For example, individuals may view or inspect Texas public records for free in person at public access terminals provided by some custodians, such as the county clerks that provide public access terminals to view court dockets or case information.
Furthermore, online databases, indexes, and public access portals may be available to researchers depending on the record needed. For instance, some county sheriffs have online databases for finding arrest logs and inmate records for free. In the same way, many Texas county clerk's offices (which also carry out county recorder duties) provide free online databases for searching real property or land records. Other government bodies also provide online access to non-confidential information like sex offender information and crime statistics.
What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?
When a local or state government agency in Texas rejects a public data search request, the requester typically receives a written explanation of the decision. The reason may be that the request was unduly burdensome and did not have a specific description or that the requested information fell under a statutory exemption. In the former case, the requester may make a more specific request, whereas in the latter case, the requester may petition a court to compel the custodian to make the record available.
Usually, the government body has to receive a decision from the attorney general on whether the requested record is exempted. However, the custodian may skip this process if a previous determination has been made for a similar request, but shall disclose this to the requester. Persons who disagree with the attorney general's judgment may contest the decision with a lawsuit. In some cases, like overcharging, failure of custodians to comply with the attorney general's decision to disclose records, or failure to properly respond to requests, requesters may file a complaint at the Open Records Division of the Office of the Attorney General.
How to Remove Names From Public Search Records?
Except in cases where names are naturally confidential and removed from public access per the Texas public records act, the only way persons may remove names from state public records is to have the records sealed or expunged by court order. However, the process of getting a court order for nondisclosure or expunction depends on the type of record. For instance, court and criminal records are often sealed or expunged, but not all government-generated documents qualify for expungement or expunction, especially when the public's right to know outweighs the need for privacy and there is no threat to the safety of persons mentioned in the record.
What is the Best Public Records Search Database?
The best public records search database is determined by the type of record needed. For instance, the Texas Sex Offender Registry is the best repository for statewide sex offender information. Additionally, various city, county, and state government agencies maintain databases or indexes of inmate records, vital records, court records, and other types of public information per the Texas public records act. As such, the best public records search database may also depend on the range of the search, i.e., whether it is a county or statewide search. For instance, Dallas County has an online record search page, Tarrant County has a court record search tool, and Harris County has a document search portal maintained by the court clerk.
How Long Does It Take to Obtain a Texas Public Record?
As per the Texas Public Information Act, there is no general fixed period within which a state or local agency must allow requesters to access public information maintained by it. However, the Act states specific periods that custodians must adhere to upon receiving a public records act request, such as:
- It is considered a request withdrawal if the requester does not inspect or copy public information 60 days after it is made available or if the requester does not pay charges after 60 days of receiving the charges statement.
- Once the custodian provides the record, requesters must complete the examination within 10 business days or file a request for additional time (another 10 days), or else the custodian will consider the request withdrawn.
- If the custodian cannot produce the record for inspection or duplication within 10 business days (after the requested date), the officer shall notify the requester of the reasonable date and hour when the record will be available.
- The government body must give the requester a written estimate on or before 10 days after the requested date if the requested information requires lots of time and employee labor.
- The custodian shall respond to requests for records that call for programming or manipulation of data via written statement within 20 days after receiving the request. This period may be extended by another 10 days if additional time is needed and the custodian has already notified the requester of the needed time within 20 days of sending the request
- If the requester receives an itemized statement for information that costs over $40, the requester must respond within 10 days by informing the custodian of accepting charges, modifying requests, or sending complaints to the attorney general for overcharging
- Temporary custodians with public information must return the information to the government body within 10 days after the officer/agent requests it returned.
- The custodian that requests for attorney general's judgment should notify requesters of this step within a reasonable time - not exceeding 10 business days from the day the request was received
- The attorney general should decide within 45 business days after receiving the request from a government body. This period may be extended by another 10 business days as long as the government body and requester receive a notice explaining the delay within the original 45 days.
Is Public Data Search Safe?
Yes. The public can safely perform public data searches to inspect or copy Texas public records, as the records are retrievable under the Texas public records act.
However, users of paid or free public data search services should be careful not to expose pertinent personal data while recovering a public record because such information may be sourced and retained by data aggregator businesses. Further, while Texas law does not direct the end use of public records, individuals must be careful to avoid illegal applications. Unlawful uses can result in legal liability or contact with a law enforcement agency.