Not only is open access to public records the cornerstone of American democracy, but also, it allows the public to monitor public officials and evaluate government operations. In Georgia, for ordinary citizens and the press alike, the ability to retrieve publicly available records from open-access databases is an exercise of the right conferred by the tax dollars spent to create or collect such records under the Georgia Open Records Act.
Most agencies, from law enforcement to the judiciary, still practice printing and storing information in paper form but employees of these agencies still generate electronic records and store these records in a public domain. Indeed, many physical records are reproductions of electronic records. Depending on the nature of the record, the generating agency and applicable domain differ from record to record. For example, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) is the central agency that maintains computerized criminal justice information. These primarily include arrest records, criminal history information, and the sex offender registry. While public requesters in Georgia can obtain arrest records from the local law enforcement, the GBI allows public requesters to conduct records inspection at the Georgia Crime Information Center (GCIC). This is based on appointment only and visiting the office at:
Georgia Crime Information Center
P.O. Box 370808
Decatur, Georgia 30037
Phone: (404) 244-2639; option 1
The criminal history information contains personal identifying information such as name, date of birth, social security number, sex, race, arrest data (including arresting agency, date of arrest, and charges). It also details the final disposition and other court information.
However, to obtain comprehensive judicial information on criminal and civil cases, a public requester may use the Georgia Judicial Gateway. The gateway provides remote access to court records maintained by the Clerk of Courts in the county where the case was filed. To get started, the public requester must visit the gateway, and select the specific court where the case was filed. Once there, the requester must create a free account on the new portal to access court records. The user will also have to set up a payment method for fees accrued in accessing court records. These court records refer to any document filed with the Clerk’s Office and include, but are not limited to, pleadings, pleas, motions, applications, requests, exhibits, briefs, memorandum, papers, or other instruments in a paper (scanned) or electronic form. Generally, the court charges a nominal document access fee of $0.50 per page, a convenience fee of 3.8%, and $0.30.
Meanwhile, for detailed information on incarcerated offenders, public requesters may peruse the online database that the Georgia Department of Corrections maintains. Once queried, the database will return information on the offender of interest who is currently housed in a correctional facility in the state. Requesters may query the database using the offender’s name and narrow down the search with additional details such as gender, age range, ID, or case number. The search will return all possible matches. Clicking on a search result will return publicly available information on the offender including an up-to-date photo, personal information, case number, current incarceration details, and incarceration history. There are no charges associated with the retrieval of this information and the requester may proceed to print the information obtained.
While accessing the aforementioned records has been straightforward, obtaining vital records in Georgia is slightly more nuanced, but it is possible. Vital records refer to documents on all life events that occur within the jurisdiction of Georgia. These include birth and death records, as well as marriage and divorce records. The Department of Public Health is the official custodian of vital records in Georgia and disseminates records to eligible requesters. Eligible requesters of vital records in the state include persons named on the record, immediate family members, and legal designees of these individuals. Generally, the Department charges $25.00 for birth or death records and $10.00 for marriage and divorce records per copy. Each additional copy costs $5.00 each and the certification of any vital record incurs a fee of $10.00.
To obtain a vital record:
- Download and complete the applicable request form
- Attach a valid government-issued photo ID
- Attach a certified check or money order for the applicable fees
- Enclose the application in a self-addressed stamped envelope and mail to:
State Office of Vital Records
1680 Phoenix Boulevard
Suite 100, Atlanta, GA 30349
The response time for mail request is usually four to six weeks. However, online requests are typically faster. Interested requesters may obtain vital records on independent repositories.
Meanwhile, public records are also available for perusal from the Office of the Secretary of State. In this case, the interested members of the public must submit an open records request. Public records refer to documents, regardless of form, prepared and maintained or received by a state agency, public official, or private entity financed by taxpayers’ money, in the conduction of official business. The Georgia Open Records Act states some exceptions to documents that may be classified as public records or released to public requesters. In many cases, the record custodian will decline a request to access public records that contain sensitive information or if such records have been sealed by statute or court order. In this case, the requester may have to obtain a court order granting access to that specific order. Otherwise, the requester may appeal to the record custodian and arrive at a compromise where the custodian redacts all sensitive information before releasing the record of interest. Record custodians are statutorily mandated to respond to requests within 3 business days.
Generally, the requester must provide the necessary information to facilitate the record search. The information must describe the record in such detail that the administrative staff can promptly retrieve the record from the official repository or docket. Besides, the requester may have to pay search fees in addition to fees associated with the reproduction and certification of the records sought. In this case, the fees are often nominal, made by certified check or money order payable to the “Georgia Secretary of State.” Furthermore, the requester must write “Open Records Request” in the memo line and mail to the attention of the “Open Records Officer.” Direct public records requests to:
214 State Capitol
Atlanta, Georgia 30334
Phone: (844) 753-7825
Email: [email protected]
As mentioned earlier, finding the record of interest depends on several factors. More importantly, the requester must possess the necessary information to identify the record and identify the official custodian.
The reader will also notice that to obtain a comprehensive record on a subject may involve several government agencies. Thus, it is important to understand the nature of a record before embarking on a record search as the process can be nuanced and expensive. Fortunately, some government agencies like the Department of Corrections allow free access to the records database. To save cost and time, especially if the records sought are in multiple jurisdictions, the requester may use independent service providers. Of course, the requester will still have to provide the necessary information to facilitate the search. However, as these service providers are unaffiliated with the government, record availability is not guaranteed.