Public records are a vast number of documents: bills, decsions, transactions, agreements, and policies. To consider them all at once is like looking at the ocean. But once individuals are identified and connected to public records, the picture focuses: think of the mayor in Sacramento, California who sued his own city to block the release of public records – his own emails – presumably to delay reporters’ knowledge of how he managed city employees.
Similarly, California’s drought suddenly made some mundane public records absolutely fascinating: the water consumption rates and habits of some of the country’s most celebrated movie stars were suddenly made public, providing tremendous insight into how the wealthy live and whether several thousands of dollars in fines even got their attention. When levying fines for using too much water did not work, Beverly Hills officials finally turned to public records to do the job. By publicly (and legally) shaming those who freely used water on lush lawns and pristine swimming pools during the drought, city officials prevailed in reducing overall water usage. Knowing their own names were splashed across newspaper stories, celebrities like David Geffen and Amy Poehler turned down the taps.
Records Follow You
Aside from scandals and crimes, public records are your lifelong societal fingerprint: they begin when you are born and a birth certificate and social security number are created. Those records compound through life with school documents, taxes, vehicle registrations, marriage licenses, business partnerships, property deeds, service on public boards, lawsuits, arrest records, voting, divorce, death, and probate.
For most of us, these records don’t get a second thought until a birth certificate is needed to get a passport or a glitch in a deed delays passing papers on a new house for a few days. Most records that are open to the public are distributed to anyone who asks, without qualification.
The internet opens a convenient portal into public records, allowing us to retrieve information anytime, anywhere, with just a few keystrokes. If you need documentation to establish residency, you may simply download utility bills, and ordering a school transcript has never been easier; however you may find that notarized copies of vital documents like birth and death records are required to use them for legal purposes, so telephoning the city office that holds them and paying a fee and then waiting for the document to arrive in snail mail is a likely scenario.
Arrest and court documents are among the most-requested public records across the country. When more than 12 million arrests are made in the country each year, those who have been arrested may find some consolation in the fact that they are in good company; the F.B.I. says 521,196 were for violent crimes, and 1,646,212 were for property crimes. If you have been arrested but were not convicted, it would be a good idea to have a copy of the disposition of your case (the judgement) on hand and be prepared to share it to protect your reputation.
Likewise, divorce documents are always a good idea to have handy as the legal process follows each of the parties for many years. The document should clearly describe how custody issues, bank accounts, security deposits, titles to automobiles, deeds, and other shared properties and responsibilities will be handled after the divorce is final.
Control Your Information
Social Security numbers were once used on all sorts of documentation, from driver’s licenses to invoices, and no one gave a second thought to their liberal use. They’re still invaluable for very important information like medical records, but unfortunately data breaches and the growing sophistication of thieves has forced us to protect our social security numbers and other basic identifying information as much as possible. Fraudulent tax returns are even being filed to get refund checks, which has given rise to fraud alerts on accounts and frequent credit checks to catch unauthorized use early. Theft of medical services by using another person’s identity is a new twist as well.
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