Requesting Public Records? Depending on the State, That Could Cost Money

This will be an issue for genealogists. Tennessee may become the latest state to start charging a fee for the time it takes to fulfill a public records request, a practice that’s emerging in some states and one that opponents say simply aims to discourage requests.

This fall, the Tennessee Office of Open Record Counsel will conduct several public hearings on charging a fee for the search and retrieval of public records. While the state can already charge for copies of public records, inspection is generally free. But earlier this year, the state’s School Board Association pushed legislation proposing an hourly labor charge for public records request (with no charge for the first hour of labor). The legislation, which was tabled until next year, also stipulated that the first 25 copies would be free.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the state press association vehemently opposed the legislation.

Tennessee is not the only state trying to extract more money from citizens’ pockets. It may be the latest state to do so but certainly is not alone. Details may be found in an article by Liz farmer at: http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-public-records-tennessee-charges.html.

My thanks to newsletter reader Ashley Odell for telling me about this article.

17 Comments

And the search fees will be applied to paying the already existing wages of existing positions? Or will the fees add new personnel to do the research? Or, wait, will the new fees go into the general fund? How does getting paid $80 relieve the burden on the same workers in a small office? Pffft

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    How do I find a document that I need yesterday….a court decision from 1985 from the immigration court in nyc and supporting documents…?

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There are huge problems with the hourly fee concept that are causing it to lose favor in areas where it has been the traditional business model for years. At the root of the problem is the fact that the hourly fee model flips the entire risk of estimating the time involved in filling the customer’s request, and fixing a fair price for the job, from the service provider to the customer. This risk ought to be on the service provider, because it is the service provider, not the customer, who is in the best position to know from long experience in the business of performing similar work on a daily basis, how much time the job ought to take and how much it’s going to cost the office to fill the customer’s request. Beyond flipping the risk of a simple mistake in estimating the time the job will take, it is also argued that hourly fees actually remove the service provider’s incentive to work efficiently so as to finish the job within the estimated time, because the customer will absorb the economic burden of the office’s inefficiencies by paying the same hourly fees for the wasted time as for the productive time.

There are further issues surrounding who will be keeping track of the time it actually takes for each search and how the timekeeping will be audited so that all customers can be confident they are not being overcharged. Every few years it seems that somewhere an independent audit results in criminal charges being filed against health care providers who have charged Medicare or Medicaid for consistently spending more time with patients than there are hours in a day. Large corporations also commonly find instances of questionable timekeeping when they audit their outside counsel fees. These customers are big enough to be able to demand and pay to for the kind of auditing needed to identify questionable items and obtain refunds of overcharges, but most ordinary citizens have neither the clout nor the financial resources to protect themselves from these kinds of abuses.

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I’m ok with an hourly fee as long as its reasonable. $10 an hour inclusive of expenses isn’t bad. What’s bad is when its $20/hour + copy fees, so the average cost of a document hits $50 very quickly.

Most of the states I deal with charge $15-$20 for a vital record, and that includes the search fee, and that seems fair. Though I do tend to encourage them to start digitizing, because they could lower the fee, sell more, and do less as the search responsibility moves to the consumer.

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    Does anyone know how to find an immigration for application to change a j1 visa to a green card ?It was in 1985 ?Where do I find the immigration judges decision and supporting documents ? Thanks….

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    The cat is eating its own tail. Here in California they INCREASE the time it takes, because before they can release any document it has to be redacted, for privacy you know. So IF you get a document, the information you seek to verify may be blocked out.

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For those interested in online Missouri death certificates from 1910 to 1964, go to
http://s1.sos.mo.gov/records/archives/archivesdb/deathcertificates/#searchDB

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What I find strange are the offices who have indices to docket numbers but will not use them to find a docket number for a court case (because they “don’t do searches”), but they will not look up a court case without a docket number. So one’s choices are to hire a title company or professional genealogist to look up the docket number or to visit the courthouse oneself.

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    You may not need a title company to look up the index number. A lot of states have been switching to electronic filing systems and making their indexes publicly available on line and searchable by the names of any of the parties to a case. Some creative Googling may locate a site for the court you are interested in.

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    The search should be for the agency of court that would control the record, terms like “Travis County Texas clerk” or “Harris County Texas District Court” or “Montague County Texas tax assessor” to find their websites. Sometimes it is understanding what the site means with its wording. A clerk’s site that says they don’t do searches may mean that they do not do free searches or searches over the telephone. However, they may do a paid search submitted in writing with payment. For example, Texas county clerks routinely do probate searches for the $5 fee established by Texas law. They use the indexes to find what records are available and let you know the cost. You order the record items you need.

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    I got the “we don’t do searches” but “yes, we have an index” over the phone. I am looking for an early 19th century record and their online index starts in the late 20th century.

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    Maybe one of the local Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness volunteers might help you out, especially if you agree to “pay it forward” by helping out someone else:
    http://www.raogk.org

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    In defense of the clerks, it is important to understand that the reason they are there is primarily to maintain the recording system by processing documents, making sure the documents meet all the legal requirements to be accepted for filing, keeping track of the documents so that they are delivered to the right government offices or courtrooms for use when needed, and are kept secure for posterity.

    Nowadays a great many of these offices are struggling to keep from falling behind on the workload that is absolutely necessary to have a functioning record-keeping system. Many of them have barely enough staff to service the lines of title closers, attorneys and citizens with deeds, liens, pleadings, judgments, etc., that all need to be handled immediately to keep businesses operating and allow people to get on with their lives. When taking someone away from that work to look something up for a historical researcher or someone for whom genealogy is a hobby will impede this work which is the primary reason for the office’s existence, they just cannot be as accommodating as they otherwise could.

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    I have an emergent situation and I am in need of the supporting documents and the disposition of an immigration Judge in New York…..I sent letters of FOIA request and I keep receiving stamped copies of the original request and I have sent FOIA letters to several addressed of the immigration depts…….this indiviual applied for a change in status from a JA1Visa to obtain a green card…..not enough to have married an American….there had to be a cause…..there was….and I now need all of the documents…..please advise….thanks…so much….

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    I would respectfully, but heartily disagree. Every person that walks into a public office and requests a public record is the “customer” of that agency. They should all be treated equally. I’ve seen many states, counties, and other jurisdictions stress this in personnel policy manuals and public mission or ethics statements, sometimes signs within the offices. Clerks don’t get to pick who gets services or records and who does not.

    Granted eager genealogists can sometimes be too chatty, or ask for unreasonable effort from the clerk. A simple request for the record, no explanation needed. Go in, do your business, pay, thank them, and leave. But all “customers” of that agency should be treated equally. My asking for a relative’s vital record for my own personal genealogy research is no different than my asking for a vital record to prove kinship in a legal case. A member of the public requesting a public record.

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A couple of people have submitted comments asking how to get copies of an immigration file for an urgent matter. If the file is needed for an ongoing immigration matter or to resolve a question of status as a legal resident of the US, this is a complicated area of the law that the average person probably should not try to handle on their own without the help of a qualified lawyer. Many local and state bar associations have referral services that try to help people find a lawyer to advise them about issues like this for a reasonable fee. Information about the New York City Bar Legal Referral Service can be found on-line here:
http://www.nycbar.org/get-legal-help/

Please note, this is not a service for assistance with your genealogy research. It is for people who need the help of a lawyer to deal with a legal problem.

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