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Are Rhode Island Records Public?

As per the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act (APRA), records maintained or stored by public bodies are available to the public. Individuals and entities have the right to access government-generated documents and information that are not private by nature or deemed exempted by law. Public access includes non-confidential materials like books, letters, electronic data processing records, maps, tape recordings, photographs, films, computer-stored data, and other forms of materials created or collected in relation to an agency's official business. Rhode Island public records include:

  • Public arrest records
  • Public bankruptcy records
  • Public criminal records
  • Public court records
  • Public inmate information
  • Public land or property records
  • Public Rhode Island divorce records
  • Public sex offender information
  • Voters’ registration cards
  • Minutes of open meetings

The Rhode Island APRA covers records generated by county, city, or state-run agencies and some quasi-public agencies responsible for maintaining documents of public business. These agencies shall make non-confidential records available to persons or entities for inspection or duplication in a preferred format, as long as it is not too tasking. However, not all government-generated records are available to the public. The APRA exempts some documents or information from public access, and custodians may withhold or redact these from requesters.

Who Can Access Rhode Island Public Records?

Section 38-2-3 of the APRA permits “every person or entity” the right to inspect and copy nonexempt records maintained by a public body. Additionally, the APRA mandates record custodians to create procedures for accessing documents and make this information readily available to the public by posting it on their websites or other platforms. Requirements may differ but often involve providing record descriptions and paying the necessary fees for searching, duplicating, certifying, or mailing the records.

However, requesters may have to go through a slightly more complex dissemination procedure to access certain documents like criminal records or vital records (Rhode Island death records, birth certificates, and marriage records) that have partly limited access. The custodian may require requesters to provide a consent form signed by the record subject or valid government-issued ID from persons with tangible interests or direct claims.

What is Exempted Under the Rhode Island Public Record Law?

The Rhode Island APRA prevents access to some government-generated documents or information that could infringe on personal privacy or endanger an individual, public safety, or an agency's operations. Record custodians may withhold part of the entire document from the requester if a reasonable portion of the record is publicly available or deny access to the whole document if there is no reasonable amount of disclosable information. Records that are unavailable to the public according to Section 38-2-2 of the Rhode Island APRA include:

  • Trade secrets: This includes financial or commercial information of a confidential or privileged nature submitted or collected from corporations, firms, or persons
  • Personnel and other personal identifiable records: This relates to certain information of government employees, employees of contractors/subcontractors considered to be private by state or federal laws and which may constitute an inexcusable invasion of personal privacy if disclosed
  • Records subject to client/attorney or doctor/patient privilege: This includes all communications and medical information relating to a client or patient
  • Records of Family Court proceedings: This refers to files of juvenile proceedings, adoptions, child custody, and illegitimate births
  • Law enforcement records: Exempted records include investigative records, information of confidential sources, and all records maintained by any law enforcement agency that may interfere with investigations or enforcement, hinder one's right to an impartial or fair trial, invade personal privacy, harm an individual’s safety, or disclose procedures, guidelines, or techniques of prosecution or investigation.
  • Closed meetings: Any minutes of a closed meeting are exempted from public disclosure pursuant to RI Gen L § 42-46-4 and RI Gen L § 42-46-5
  • Tax returns
  • Records deemed unavailable to the opposing party in litigation by court rule or law.
  • Library records that may disclose the identity of persons using, requesting, or checking out any library materials
  • Individually identifiable assessment of public school workers done in accordance with federal or state regulation or law
  • Requests for advisory opinions until the agency publishes its opinion
  • Information, statements, opinions, reports, and records deemed confidential by court rule, federal or state law, or federal regulation
  • Non-administrative records of judicial bodies
  • Printouts from Teletext devices used by people with impaired hearing or speech
  • Oral testimonies, answers to written interrogatories, and other documentary materials gotten under any subpoena issued under the State False Claim Act (RI Gen L § 9-1.1-6)
  • Except for personal review or examination, records of individual test scores on licensing examinations and professional certification
  • Scoring keys, test questions, and other examination data applied during academic examinations, employment or promotion examination, or licensing examinations
  • Investigatory records of non-law enforcement agencies on alleged violations of rule, regulation, or statute excluding records of final actions taken
  • Credit card account numbers
  • Confidential records received directly or through the NAIC from the insurance division of another state's department of business regulation
  • Documents generated or used by a school district to protect students from threats.
  • Real estate appraisals, estimates, and evaluations are private before property acquisition, contract termination, or abandonment of all transactions or proceedings.
  • Correspondence sent by or to elected officials concerning their official business or those that they represent
  • Preliminary working papers, notes, impressions, and work products, including materials on research at state institutions of higher education, unless submitted during a public meeting of a public body.
  • Negotiation or strategy reports and statements on labor negotiations or collective bargaining
  • Negotiation or strategy reports and statements on investing or borrowing of public funds until the deal is complete
  • Personal identifiable information on donors or contributors who make lawful charitable contributions to a public body and requested anonymity
  • Security plans, technological secrets, and scientific secrets of law enforcement and military agencies that may endanger public security and welfare if disclosed

In addition to these exemptions, custodians may carry out a “balancing test” to weigh the different interests for and against public disclosure, such as determining if public interests outweigh the need for privacy. This option may help make certain agency records like police reports and court records public or help entities keep certain documents under seal. However, not all records are subject to the balancing test, such as personnel records of an identifiable employee, medical records, and other documents explicitly exempted by the APRA because disclosure would be an unjustified invasion of personal privacy.

Where Can I Access Public Criminal Court Records in Rhode Island?

Criminal court records in Rhode Island are often available in the courthouse where the criminal case was filed. Excluding sealed or confidential documentary materials, individuals may access Rhode Island court records on criminal cases through the court clerk, public access terminals, or online, depending on the record type. Interested persons may send request letters or forms containing specific case descriptions and details of the required document to the clerk of the specific court for case information. Some courts may also provide public access to free Rhode Island court records through computer terminals which individuals can use to search for criminal case records in person. Otherwise, individuals may get remote access to dockets, register of actions, or other case details on court websites.

Additionally, interested persons may opt for criminal background checks or crime-related reports generated or gathered by law enforcement agencies. Statewide or nationwide checks by the Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) provide details of non-expunged criminal convictions in the state or country (if any) along with other related information. Furthermore, Sheriffs of local Police Departments may provide accident reports, case and arrest logs, or help eligible residents conduct BCI background checks.

Record custodians will charge requesters for conducting background searches and obtaining copies of court records or police reports. For instance, the BCI charges $5 for statewide searches, $35 for national background checks, and $40 for both. However, eligible third-party requesters have to supply a signed and notarized release form along with a valid government-issued ID. Meanwhile, viewing readily available court records is often free, but the court usually charges for duplicating documents or searching for older files.

Note: Interested persons can find information on convicted sex offenders on the Rhode Island Sex Offender Registry.

How Do I Find Public Records in Rhode Island?

Finding public records in Rhode Island depends on the type of record needed, as there is no central repository for all public records or mediator for all public record requests. In line with the Rhode Island Public Records Act, each agency is responsible for maintaining and disseminating records of their public business, as specified by the Act. However, persons interested in how to access public records in Rhode Island may follow the following steps:

  1. Identify the record or type of information required

The first step to accessing any record is determining the type of record or information required and other specific details like the date covered by the document, case numbers, party names, and the number of pages needed. Prospective requesters should know, beforehand, the form by which the record should be i.e., paper, tape recordings, certified, and so on. This step will help record requests easier for the requester and request processing and record retrieval faster for the custodian.

  1. Identify record custodian

Most times, this step is easy as different agencies maintain their records like courts maintain civil and criminal case records, while the Department of Health keeps vital records on birth, marriage, and death. However, this may be slightly difficult if the public body has branches. For instance, deciding if a law enforcement record is available with the State Police, County Sheriff's Offices, or City Police or not knowing the specific court where a case was filed to make a request. Therefore, record seekers need to identify the appropriate agency or department in the state, county, or municipality that keeps the record and processes the request.

  1. Determine the record availability

Knowing the record and its custodian does not mean that the record is publicly available. Sometimes, certain documents or information may be confidential and inaccessible, while some may require consent from the record subject in the form of a notarized release form. Hence, interested persons have to find out if the record is public before making requests so as to prevent avoidable stress later on. Individuals can also contact the record custodian to confirm the record availability and ask how to do a public records search. Furthermore, most agencies provide information on how to carry out record searches or requests on their website.

  1. Create a request or conduct an online search

Once availability status is confirmed and interested persons have determined how to check for public records in Rhode Island, requesters can go ahead to make the request or online search if a request is unnecessary. Public information concerning inmates, sex offenders, and court cases may be available online, and persons do not need to request access. However, persons who want copies of court records and other documents may have to create and send requests to the record custodian.

Requesting a record may involve writing a letter containing the following information:

  • Requester’s name
  • Record type (divorce decree, arrest record, police body cam tapes, etc.)
  • Record or event descriptions (case number, filing date, arrest date, location, etc.)
  • Record subject details such as name, DOB, and sex
  • Requester’s contact details or mailing address
  • Request specifics like the type of copy (paper or tape, certified or abstract), number of copies, number of pages, and the highest cost available for record search and duplication

However, some agencies have online request portals, online forms, or downloadable and fillable request forms on their websites.

  1. Submit the request and other requirements

Once the request letter or form is complete, requesters should submit it through the appropriate channels, such as mail, email, fax, dropbox, or in person. If the custodian requires specific documentation - government-issued ID, certified court order, notarized release form, proof of relationship - requesters should also attach copies to the mail or submit it together with the request form in person. Always confirm the address before sending the request.

Lastly, requesters should provide applicable fees in the form accepted by the custodian (money order, cash, certified check, etc. Most times, cash is not acceptable by mail. Payment may be together with the request or after the custodian sends a reply that states how much the record will cost.

In addition, 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 Rhode Island?

As per the Access to Public Records Act (Section 34-2-4), agencies can charge a "reasonable" cost for record search, retrieval, and duplication in Rhode Island. As specified by the Act, fees shall not exceed 15 cents per copy of written documents photocopied on typical legal or business-size paper, while document search and retrieval should not exceed $15 per hour from the second hour of the search.

Furthermore, custodians can charge a reasonable actual fee for retrieving records from storage where the public body pays a retrieval fee or for duplicating electronic records and other forms of documents. However, custodians must carry out the search, retrieval, and copying within a reasonable time after receiving the request. In unique request cases where fees are unspecified on the custodian's website, the requester shall receive a detailed breakdown of the charges from the public body.

Note: A court may waive or reduce record search or retrieval fees if the requested information is not in the requester’s commercial interest but shall be used to contribute to public understanding of government activities and operations.

How Do I Look Up Public Records in Rhode Island for Free?

To find free public records in Rhode Island, interested persons should consider the type of record to be accessed. This is because some public records are available on government-maintained online databases, some are provided by custodians for free inspection, while others require payment. For instance, some custodians, like courts, often allow requesters to view readily available or online records for free but charge requesters for duplicating documents, same with other custodians.

Therefore, the question "where can I search public records for free?" should be preceded by “what kind of public record do I want to get?” Not all records are available for free, but in some cases, online search tools provided by public bodies are free to view, although getting duplicate copies will require requesters to pay the actual cost, except the court waives the fees.

Do I Need to State My Purpose When Requesting Public Records in Rhode Island?

Persons do not have to state their reason for making a public record request in Rhode Island. According to Section 38-2-3(j) of the APRA, record custodians shall not require a statement of purpose amongst conditions for making requests, nor shall the public body withhold the record based on the requester's purpose of requesting the document.

What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?

If a public body denies a public record request, the requester will receive, within 10 working days, the specific reason why the request was denied. The public body's failure to respond to the request within the same period can also be seen as denial, in compliance with Section 38-2-7 of the APRA.

The reason for denial may include:

  • The request record is exempted from public disclosure by the APRA or deemed confidential by state or federal laws
  • The request was vague and nonspecific
  • The requested document does not exist or is not in custody or control
  • The request is unduly burdensome because of the number of records requested or the cost for retrieval or duplication
  • Incomplete record requests, such as failure to complete a request form, provide release form, or pay fees

The reply will also contain the procedure to appeal the decision as specified by Section 38-2-8 of the APRA. Firstly, the denied requester may petition the Chief Administrative Officer of the agency that denied the request to evaluate the decision and make a final determination concerning the request. The Chief Administrative Officer has 10 business days after receiving the review petition to permit or deny public inspection.

If denied, the requester may file a complaint with the Attorney General designated to receive and investigate these claims. If the allegations are deemed valid, the Attorney General shall file for declaratory or injunctive relief on the complainant's behalf in the Superior Court of the county where the record is available. Otherwise, the denied requester may retain private counsel and file for declaratory or injunctive relief at the Superior Court. If the Supreme Court rules that the custodian should have granted the request, the Supreme Court may impose a fine not exceeding $1,000 for a reckless violation of the APRA or $2,000 for a knowing and willful violation. The court may also award attorney's fees to the requester.

Note: If some parts of the requested records are confidential, the requester may choose to receive copies with redacted information.

How to Remove Names From Public Search Records?

Names and personal identifying information that are exempted under the APRA and other state or federal laws are not accessible to the public. However, individuals who wish to remove names from a public record can only do so by sealing or expunging the entire record, in line with court rules and the Rhode Island expungement law.

What is the Best Public Records Search Database?

Determining the best public records search database in Rhode Island depends on the type of record. Because each public body is responsible for maintaining its records, various online databases are available for public record search and inspection. For instance, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections makes certain inmate records publicly available and searchable with the inmate search tool, while the Rhode Island Sex Offender Registry is the best public records search database to find sex offenders in the state.

Furthermore, county and city agencies also provide online access to public records. For instance, persons may find public records information on Providence County, Kent County, and Washington County websites. However, note that not all databases are free.

How Long Does It Take to Obtain a Rhode Island Public Record?

A public body has 10 business days - from the day of receiving a request - to permit or deny a public record request in Rhode Island. An additional 20 business days may be granted to comply with the request if the public body notifies the requester and explains the need for the added time, which may include:

  • The large size of requested records
  • The amount of outstanding records requests
  • Difficulty in searching, retrieving or duplicating the needed records

The processing period may also depend on the request method. For instance, some custodians process in-person requests faster than mailed or online requests. Same-day responses may be possible for in-person requests done within work hours, and some government bodies permit expedited requests for a fee.

Distance and channel of making a request may also affect the response time. For instance, if a mailed request takes three days to reach the custodian, the response time may take up to 13 days from the mailing date or more, depending on the time the response delivery takes.