Are Tennessee Records Public?
Most records are open to the public, as provided by the Tennessee Public Records Act. Under the law, all non-confidential public records Tennessee governmental agencies create should be accessible by requesters. A record seeker can make a Public Records Act request online, in-person, by email, telephone, fax, or mail, depending on the specific government agency in charge of the record being sought.
Tennessee law describes public records as the information received or created under statute or ordinance and used to conduct official business. Per TN Code Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(1)(A)(i), Tennessee public records include documents, photographs, letters, papers, maps, and books. The definition also covers other types of data storage, regardless of characteristics or physical form. These include films, sound recordings, microfilms, and other related materials. Public records comprise:
- Public property records
- Public court records
- Public Tennessee death records
- Public arrest records
- Public sex offender information
- Public criminal records
- Public birth records
- Public bankruptcy records
Tennessee public agencies, including municipal, county, and state agencies, must ensure access to all public records for inspection and copying. Record custodians in charge of these records cannot refuse access unless there is a lawful exemption. In such cases, the agency may restrict access to the records or redact confidential parts before allowing inspection or copying. (Per TN Code Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(5).
A record seeker can conduct a public data search by visiting the website of the specific Tennessee governmental agency in charge of the records they are seeking. Some public records are available for free, while some come at a low cost. For instance, a record seeker can conduct a free public data search on the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry. In contrast, it costs about $29 to access criminal records maintained by the Tennessee Criminal Justice Information Service Division.
Who Can Access Tennessee Public Records?
Under TN Code Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(2)(A), public agencies must attend to requests from “any citizen of this state”. This means that only citizens can exercise the right to inspect or copy public records in Tennessee. However, the Tennessee Public Records Act does not require public bodies to deny requests from non-citizens. Hence, a non-citizen can run a background check on an individual living in Tennessee through governmental agencies in charge of the records they seek.
What Record is Exempted Under the Tennessee Public Records Act?
The Tennessee Public Records Act provides several exemptions to the public disclosure rule. These exemptions exist to protect confidential or sensitive information, especially where public disclosure could endanger life and property or interfere with efforts at prosecution or investigation. Some exemptions include the following:
- Medical Records: Record custodians in public institutions cannot release medical records of patients receiving treatment from any such facility. According to TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(1)(A), this exemption covers all municipal, county, or state hospitals and medical facilities. Individually identifiable health information created, maintained, or compiled by the Tennessee Department of Health must also be treated as confidential.
- Investigative Records: The Tennessee Public Records Act protects investigative records of several agencies, including the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Inspector General. However, the information contained in these records may be open to the public in compliance with a court order or a subpoena (TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(2)(A).
All law enforcement personnel records are also considered open for inspection under the Tennessee Public Records Act. However, the record custodian must notify the affected person and provide the following information within three days:
- A confirmation that such inspection took place
- The name, telephone number, and address of the person who inspected the record
- The name of the person whose records were inspected
- The inspection date
- Military Records: Documents, papers, and other records held by the military and containing security information for Tennessee or the United States are not open to public disclosure. These records include plans, assessments, staff studies, investigative reports, and related personnel records (TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(3).
- Property Appraisals: Records that contain the value of any personal or real property a public agency is looking to acquire must remain confidential. These details must remain undisclosed until after the acquisition is complete (TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(6).
- Sealed Bids: Custodians must prevent access to all sealed bids for the lease or purchase of real property, goods, and services. In addition, the public cannot access related evaluations, memoranda, and proposals for such bids (TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(7).
- Structural Vulnerability Records: Records containing information that reveal a utility service provider’s operational or structural vulnerability are exempt from public disclosure. These include any records that could allow a person to cause an unlawful disruption or interference. (TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(21)(A)(i)
- Security Contingency Records: This exemption covers a governmental entity’s security contingency plans created to prevent or respond to a disruption of public peace. According to TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(21)(A)(ii), such disruptions may include a bomb threat, violent incident, terrorist incident, or other threat involving weapons of mass destruction.
- Personal Information of Public Employees: Under TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(f), the public cannot inspect or obtain copies of records that contain personal identifying information of a current, past, or prospective public employee. Such information includes, but is not limited to, phone numbers, bank account details, social surety numbers, and residential information. This exemption also covers any personnel conducting operations in Tennessee. However, TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(f) states that where possible, the record custodian may disclose such records available after redacting the confidential parts.
It is important to note that any record exempted from public disclosure that has been in existence for more than 70 years is accessible to the public unless prohibited by federal law or such records belong to a person with mental illness or intellectual and developmental disabilities. However, this excludes records maintained by the Tennessee Office of Vital Records or by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-504)
Where Can I Access Public Criminal Court Records in Tennessee?
Tennessee criminal court records are available at the overseeing court. The Tennessee Judicial system provides Superior, District, and Municipal Courts with varying levels of jurisdiction over criminal cases. Anyone seeking criminal court records may send requests to the relevant court. Requests may be submitted physically, by mail, or via other means as the custodian court allows. Record seekers should ensure that each request adequately describes the criminal court record with the litigants’ names, charge dates and description, final judgment, and other known specifics.
The Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts also provides public access to free Tennessee court records via its online public case history tool. The public can look up the status of cases in the Tennessee Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and Court of Criminal Appeals. Search options include a case number, case style, party name, and business or organization.
How Do I Find Public Records in Tennessee?
Because there is no central repository of public records in Tennessee, the process required to find these records differs between agencies. Nonetheless, there are similarities in the steps record seekers must follow. The following steps form a general guide for how to access public records in Tennessee:
- Decide on the record.
Interested persons must start the request process by deciding on the desired record. Tennessee public agencies have varying statutory functions that inform the type of records they create or maintain. The requester must first know the type of record and confirm that the desired information is open to public disclosure.
- Determine the agency in charge
Since agencies maintain different records, requesters must identify the agency in charge of the desired record to direct submitted requests properly. For instance, access to court records should be directed to the clerk of the court that handled the case. Record seekers must also submit requests for arrest records or inmate information to the applicable county sheriff’s office or the Tennessee Department of Corrections. Additionally, vital records can be obtained from the Tennessee Office of Vital Records.
- Write a request
A request should properly describe the desired record, providing as much information as available. However, under Tennessee law (TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(7)(A)(i)), public agencies may not ask inspecting requesters for written requests. Nonetheless, the law allows agencies to require written requests from persons who need copies. The request may be in writing or on a public records request form.
In some cases, the agency may also require the requester to provide government-issued photo identification that includes the person’s address or another acceptable form of identification if a government-issued option is unavailable.
- Submit the request
Record seekers can submit the created request after following the above steps. While many agencies allow a range of submission options, including email, fax, mail, telephone, online, or in person, requesters must understand the peculiarities of each one. For example, online requests may yield fast results as the process is mainly automated. Same-day responses may also only be possible through in-person requests. Furthermore, while mail requests may require longer processing times, certified copies of desired records may be restricted to mail and in-person requests.
Using Third-Party Sites to Find Public Records in Tennessee
Some public 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 must typically 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.
How Much Do Public Records Cost in Tennessee?
The Tennessee Public Records Act forbids record custodians from charging inspection fees unless otherwise required by law (TN Code Ann. § 10-7-504(a)(7)(A)(i)). However, agencies may charge reasonable costs incurred while duplicating the record for persons who request physical copies. The custodian must also provide the requester with an estimate of said cost.
According to Tennessee law (TN Code Ann. § 8-4-604(a)(1)), the Comptroller of the Treasury's Office of Open Records Counsel must establish a Schedule of Reasonable Charges to guide record custodians with charging fair request fees. The Schedule provides a maximum charge of 15 cents per black and white page or 50 cents per color page for copies with a standard size of 8½” x 11” or 8½” x 14”. If an agency maintains a record in color but can produce it in black and white, the record custodian must inform the requester of this option.
The Schedule of Reasonable Charges also allows the government agency to develop its own fees if the actual costs of duplication exceed the above figures or if the copies are larger than the specified standard size. However, the agency must establish its own schedule of fees in a properly adopted policy. The schedule must detail the calculation behind the extra charges in addition to the actual cost of producing the record.
Furthermore, Tennessee also allows agencies to charge labor fees involved in producing the records. The custodian may calculate labor fees using the hourly wage of any employee considered reasonably necessary to produce the record. Nonetheless, the Schedule of Reasonable Charges specifies that all record custodians must use the most cost-efficient method of producing records while entertaining a request.
How Do I Look Up Public Records in Tennessee for Free?
Access to Tennessee public records may depend on the type of record and the custodian agency. Under the Tennessee Public Records Act, agencies may charge reasonable fees before producing copies of desired records. Consequently, the possibility of obtaining free records may be limited.
Requesting physical copies of records usually costs a copy or labor fee. For instance, requesting physical copies of records from any Tennessee County Clerk’s Office or County Recorder’s Office typically comes at a cost. However, the Public Records Act does not permit custodians to charge requesters who want to inspect and not copy records. Therefore, interested persons may look up public records in Tennessee for free by requesting an inspection.
Many free public records Tennessee creates or maintains are also available online. Several agencies compile and maintain online databases with information that record seekers can look up for free. Examples of free online records include real estate assessment data provided by the Comptroller of the Treasury and the Department of Corrections’ felony offender information.
Do I Need to State My Purpose When Requesting Public Records in Tennessee?
Requesters do not need to state a request purpose to inspect public records or obtain copies. The Tennessee Public Records Act does not require government agencies to request a statement of purpose before responding to a request. However, public agencies may ask the requester to state a purpose if the information is required to determine whether the record is exempt from public disclosure.
What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?
Any Tennessee citizen denied access to public records could file a petition in the Chancery or Circuit Court in the municipality or county where the records are located. Citizens may also file in any other court with equity jurisdiction (TN Code Ann. § 10-7-505(b)). This is because Tennessee residents are free to inspect or obtain any public records maintained by state government agencies in accordance with the Tennessee Public Records Act. Hence, a record seeker can conduct a public data search online, by mail, or visit the custodian agency in-person to obtain public records.
After the filing, the court may request the agency to immediately appear and defend its reason for the denial. Requesters must note that the court may order the agency to submit the records under seal for review. After the hearing and review, the court’s decision is final.
If the judgment is in the requester’s favor, the court will order the agency to make the record available unless both of the following simultaneously apply:
- The agency timely files a notice of appeal
- The court certifies that there is a legal issue regarding the disclosure that requires a resolution by an appellate court
Generally, the record custodian required to provide access to the public record is not responsible for any direct or indirect damages and is not liable for civil or criminal charges. However, the court may levy a fine against the agency, including reasonable attorney fees, if it finds that the agency willfully refused to disclose a public record.
How to Remove Names From Public Search Records?
Although Tennessee Public Records Act permits residents to inspect and obtain public records, there are instances where record holders can have their information removed from state public records. Removing names from public records is a complex process as Tennessee provides no singular action for all records. Interested persons must identify every record that has their names and follow processes set by law in each case. However, requesters must note that private databases may still contain names removed from records created or maintained by the government. Parties may petition relevant courts like a general sessions court or a Tennessee superior court to expunge certain records if they qualify according to state law.
Several requirements guide the Tennessee expungement process according to TN Code Ann. § 40-32-101. For instance, offenses including public indecency, domestic assault, child abuse, driving under the influence, aggravated assault, and unlawful firearm possession are not eligible for Tennessee expungement. Generally, convictions for sexually violent crimes are ineligible. Furthermore, persons with more than two criminal convictions, including out-of-state convictions, are not eligible.
What is the Best Public Records Search Database?
Tennessee has no single database considered as the best public records search database for all records. All state government agencies have their own unique public records search database, which they use to make information available to the public in accordance with the Tennessee Public Records Act. Generally, the best option for finding a particular record is the registry or database compiled by the custodian agency. For instance, the county's inmate lookup registry is the best public records search database for Shelby County inmates. The Davidson County Chancery Court also maintains a public database for court records, while Knox County has an inmate population search for incarcerated persons.
How Long Does It Take to Obtain a Tennessee Public Record?
Per Tennessee Public Records Act, a person can access public information maintained by a state or local agency in Tennessee. As a result, a record seeker can make a Public Record Act Request when they want to obtain information about anyone in the state. Additionally, the Tennessee Public Records Act states that all record custodians must promptly provide access to public records not exempt from disclosure. However, if prompt access is not practicable, the custodian must do one of the following within seven business days (TN Code Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(2)(B):
- Provide the requester with the record
- Provide the requester with written notice of the time reasonably required to provide the record
- Deny the request in writing, ensuring that the notice contains the reason for the denial.
A requester has the right to bring an action in court if no record or written notice is received from the record custodian within seven business days.
Is Public Data Search Safe?
Yes. The Tennessee Public Records Act allows individuals to access public records available in the state. As a result, individuals can safely use public data search services to obtain public records. Generally, the safest place to conduct a public data search is on government websites and not third-party websites. However, some government agencies have disclaimers on their websites, limiting the use of information obtained from databases. In addition, the process of using public records in Tennessee must adhere to the requirements set forth by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to avoid legal claims. Typically, a record seeker can conduct a free public data search on some government platforms, while others come at a cost. For instance, a requester can obtain free records like arrest or sex offenders records from a law enforcement agency like a local police or sheriff's office or Tennessee Sex Offender Registry.