The Right to Know Law by the Pennsylvania legislature promotes public transparency at all levels of government. Per this law, a government agency is pretty much an open book. While you can look through their books, you cannot take the book or remove the page. Instead, you must make a copy of the document of interest for your personal use.
This law, however, does not cover the records of some government agencies in Pennsylvania. So, while you can still access the documents, you will be making a request subject to the agency’s public records policy. In any way, a common feature of getting public records is to know the specific state or local custodian and how to submit a request to that custodian.
While you can get much of the information you seek for free, some government agencies require you to pay a search or service fee. This fee covers the administrative efforts to retrieve and copy the documents you seek. You may also incur a surcharge to cover mailing costs and expedited service.
Pennsylvania Criminal Records
The state police maintain the Pennsylvania Access to Criminal History (PATCH) database for public access to criminal background checks. There is a non-refundable $22.00 charge for this online service, which you must pay before every search.
While online search is the fastest way to get criminal records, there is no guarantee that the record you seek is available on the database at the time. With this in mind, you may submit a mail request using the criminal history request form. Attach a certified check or money order for the search fee and enclose the request in a self-addressed stamped envelope. Send your mail to:
Pennsylvania State Police
Central Repository – 164
1800 Elmerton Avenue Harrisburg,
Phone: (888) 783-7972 (helpdesk)
However, unlike online search, where the criminal record is available immediately, a mail request may take as long as two (2) weeks before the search result gets back to you. And this is assuming your submission is correct, complete and the administrative workload is fair.
Pennsylvania Court Records
If you are interested in viewing or copying court case records, you have three options. Remote access to court case records is available on the Unified Judicial System web portal. The service is free, but there are limitations to the kinds of information you can access online per the judiciary’s case records public access policy. For sensitive or confidential information, you will need to send a mail request or visit the court of record in person. Either way, you will need to fill the official request form and submit it in person or send it via mail to the courthouse where the trial happened. If you decide to visit the courthouse in person, know that the Clerk of Court’s office handles public requests for case documents.
Pennsylvania Inmate Records
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections maintains a central database for finding inmates in the criminal justice system. Felony offenders typically serve time in state correctional facilities. Misdemeanor offenders usually serve time in county jails, and you can contact the local jail administrator for inmate records.
If you prefer to get inmate records from the Department of Corrections, use the inmate locator. You will need to know the inmate’s name and other identifiers such as date of birth and race. A name-based search will return several prisoners who bear the same name or similar names. So, you may use the inmate’s number to save time if known. In addition, a search will return the inmate’s personal information and recent photograph. You have the option to print out these details for free.
Understandably, the information on the inmate locator is fundamental and may not suffice for the purpose you need. If this is the case, prepare a right-to-know request using the standard request form. Remember that you must describe the specific information you seek or the document that contains the information. Finally, enclose your request in a self-addressed stamped envelope (for postal mail) or email the Department of Corrections or the administrative office at the prison with custody.
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
Right-To-Know Law Office
Office of Chief Counsel
1920 Technology Parkway
Mechanicsburg, PA 17050
Phone: (717) 728-7763
Fax: (717) 728-0312
Email: [email protected]
Pennsylvania Vital Records
These are records of life events within the state’s jurisdiction, i.e., all births, marriages, divorces, and deaths. The Pennsylvania Department of Health must maintain certified copies of birth and death records per state and federal laws. Generally, only eligible persons, i.e., the persons named on the document, their immediate family members, and legal representatives, may submit a request. Other persons must wait until the period of confidentiality elapses on a vital record.
A requester must download and complete the request form for a birth certificate or a death certificate, depending on the document of interest. There are also applicable forms to request a fee waiver, redaction, or correction. Attach a copy of your government-issued photo I.D. and payment in the form of a certified check or money order. Enclose your request in a self-addressed stamped envelope and mail the record to:
Department of Health
Bureau of Health Statistics & Registries
Division of Vital Records
P.O. Box 1528
New Castle, PA 16103
Phone: (844) 228-3516 (toll-free)
Divorce records and marriage records are available at the County Clerk of Court’s office. Besides, many counties maintain a searchable database for marriage and divorce records online. If there is no online database, the record custodian will supply a request form you can use. Visit the county’s website for this information.
Bankruptcy Records In Pennsylvania
The bankruptcy courts in Pennsylvania are divided into three districts viz-a-viz:
- The Eastern District Bankruptcy Court
- The Middle District Bankruptcy Court
- The Western District Bankruptcy Court
Each district handles bankruptcy filings from specific counties and cities. If you are interested in getting documents submitted during a bankruptcy filing, identify the district that handles bankruptcy filings for the county where the debtor resides. Then visit the clerk’s office in the nearest division.
However, a faster way to get bankruptcy records is to use the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system. This database contains court documents from federal courts across the county – bankruptcy is a federal case. Either way, the cost of getting Pennsylvania bankruptcy case records is $0.10 per page.
Business Records In Pennsylvania
The Department of State maintains business records in Pennsylvania. These include corporate filings, Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filings, business names, trademarks, and other business records. These records are available to interested persons who submit a right-to-know request.
Because public records are the source of factual information in Pennsylvania, you will need to get one for various reasons. If you are performing a background check, you will need to contact at least one of these agencies for relevant public records.
Independent service providers maintain aggregate records on one database, saving you the stress and cost of shuttling between record custodians. But given the pace government agencies generate public records, please find a trusted service provider for up-to-date records.