Frequently asked questions: Public records

What are public records?

Public records are any records prepared, owned, used, or retained by a state or local agency that contain information about the conduct of government or the performance of its functions.

Records may be kept in handwriting, typewriting, print, photocopies, photographs, electronic media, or any other means of recording and include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Papers
  • Maps
  • Magnetic or paper tapes
  • Photographic films and prints
  • Motion picture, film, and video recordings
  • Magnetic or punched cards
  • Discs or diskettes
  • Sound recordings
  • Data compilations from which information may be obtained or translated

What is the difference between public information and public records?

While, in general, we must provide access to existing, identifiable records in our possession, we aren’t required to collect information or organize data to create a record that doesn’t exist at the time of the request. Be as specific as possible in your description.

Are all public records subject to disclosure?

No. State and federal law include many exemptions, particularly of personally identifiable information. For example:

  • The federal Driver Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), codified as 18 USC § 2721-2725, strictly limits the type of driver and vehicle records that may be released. The DPPA only permits the release of certain types of information to selected parties for limited and specific uses.
  • In Washington, lists of individual names and addresses can never be used to contact people for "commercial purposes" such as direct marketing.

We carefully evaluate requests for public records to determine if we can legally release the records for the reasons given. If we must deny your request, we will send you an explanation why the request was denied and identify the specific law that exempts the records from disclosure.

Related laws

RCW 42.56: Public Records Act.

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