Courts and government agencies at all levels started digitizing their records and making them searchable online just a couple of years after the advent of the World Wide Web. The earliest jurisdictions started digitization in the mid-1990s, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC).
This makes our public records one of the first major categories of information to jump on the Information Superhighway, as it was known then, right behind movie showtimes, classified ads, and porn. Jurisdictions were glad to go digital even if most citizens would have preferred they did not.Search Anyone Free
"One of the most challenging public policy issues of our time is the balancing act between access to public records and personal privacy—the difficulty of accommodating both personal privacy interests and the public interest of transparent government." So went the introduction to a paper by the PRC that was presented at a privacy conference in 2002. We were already in a privacy dilemma then. Since then, the dilemma has only grown worse.
Personal information ripe for fraud and abuse, like social security numbers and credit card numbers, is relatively easy to get removed (de-indexed) from the internet because the law is on your side. Submit a takedown request to Google, Bing, Yahoo, and so on.
Understand Where Bad Info Comes From
Where we see our bad, misleading, and unflattering records today is rarely where the info lives. Public and commercial entities will package the data deemed public information and share it with aggregators, who might build datasets and share those. By the time we see it when we run a background search on ourselves online, the bad info could be two or three steps removed from its origin.
Record search services did not make the mistake—they merely reveal it. That's a good thing. Now you can take action to correct the error at its origin. And in the meantime the leading people finders and record search tools, such as PeopleWhiz, make it easy for you to remove your public records from their search results.
Not all public records search tools make delisting information easy, though. If your concern is that someone will see old, misleading info when they look up your public records, you can never be sure which service they will use. While you can attain some level of privacy by visiting the public records search websites and asking to have yourself delisted, you won't be able to ask them all. Some companies do not have an easy process, and new companies spring up every day.
“Jurisdictions were glad to go digital even if most citizens would have preferred they did not.”
Correcting or removing information at its origin is the best way to ensure that nobody sees the bad info when they look you up.
How to Change an Address on a Public Record
We all know that when you move, you fill out a change of address form at the Post Office. While this will redirect your mail going forward, it will not automatically change the address shown on public records at the county courthouse or city hall.
For many people this is not a problem because past addresses are part of the overall history reflected in public records, but some situations can make old addresses a liability. The historical address could contain a mistake, making it look as if you lived in two places at once. The address on a "doing business as" record could no longer match where you currently live, which may seem fishy to prospective clients.
Removing or fixing an old address on public records may take many emails or phone calls or visits to the recorder's office. Look up your town hall or city hall online; you might be able to make your request without ever leaving home. Public records at the city/town hall include property assessments, property tax bills, and local police documents.
At the county records office are such documents as "doing business as" filings, marriage records, old wills, and deeds and mortgages. The clerk there will know which records are likely to show your address. Before you visit, look into the types of ID you must bring and which forms to fill out. Expect to provide proof of your new or corrected address, such as with a utility bill.
Make sure the phone company has your current address. As people leave landlines behind, keep the same phone number after they move, and opt for email-only billing, the connection between geographical addresses and phone numbers has been all but severed. They used to be intertwined. The area code and exchange (first three digits) of a landline number locate someone in a particular neighborhood; plus, the phone company had to know where to mail your bill or you couldn't pay it. All that has gone out the window with moveable phone numbers and paperless billing. Luckily, phone companies make it easy for their customers to register a new address online.
Think of other publicly funded places where your address is on file, and see if they offer an address update tool on their website. Such places include:
- Public pools
- Unemployment office
- Parks and Recreation offices
The P.O. Box trick doesn't work anymore.
Using a P.O. Box as a primary mailing address used to be common tactic for hiding your home address on public records. A person could switch their legal address to a P.O. Box at the DMV, making it likely that the change would propagate elsewhere. The Real ID Act forbids this today. Licenses in all 50 states must be tied to a corroborated home address.
How to Take Down Court Records
In a previous article we covered the general steps and boundaries of getting a jurisdiction to seal your court records. Anyone with a civil or criminal conviction naturally has an interest in putting a lid on things. If you were arrested but not convicted, or the charges were dismissed, you are even more motivated to have the mark removed from your record. Even if a judge does not agree to seal a whole record, he or she may agree to seal a particularly sensitive part.
Because the requirements to seal court records vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, we thought we'd dive deep into the steps one state requires in the hope of illustrating what work you might face in your state (or more specifically, the state where you were arrested). And if you were arrested in Illinois, good news! The state into which we are diving deep is Illinois.
Once a record is sealed, in some states the contents are legally considered never to have happened.
One State's Example
The first step in Illinois is to download the form Request to Expunge and/or Seal Criminal Records. In this state, sealing achieves the following: "Hides your criminal record from most of the public. Law enforcement agencies can still see sealed records. Employers required by law to conduct background checks can see sealed felony convictions. They cannot see sealed misdemeanor convictions or cases not resulting in convictions unless the employer is a law enforcement agency."
Next, get copies of your criminal records. Fees are associated with getting a copy of your RAP sheet (Record of Arrests and Prosecutions) from city and state offices. Residents of Illinois are allowed to get complete transcripts from the Illinois State Police or from any other law enforcement agency. Contact info and websites are included on the PDF form.
Review your RAP sheet to determine whether your record can be sealed. In Illinois, the type of offenses that can be sealed are:
- Arrests and charges for misdemeanors and felonies that did not lead to a conviction.
- Convictions for most misdemeanors and felonies so long as at least three years have passed since the completion of your last sentence.
- Convictions for which you were required to register as an arsonist or a "violent offender against youth" and are no longer required to register, and at least three years have passed since the completion of your last sentence.
The type of records that cannot be sealed in Illinois include minor traffic offenses, DUI and reckless driving, domestic battery, sexual offenses, and stalking. A new felony conviction after you had another one sealed also makes you ineligible for sealing and, what's more, can unseal the past conviction.
Filling out the state's form comes next, a task that may prove both informative and complicated. Then you file the form in the county where you were arrested or charged with the offense. Illinois makes it possible to file by mail or website too; just check with the circuit clerk in your county.
The court now considers your request. The court also considers any objections to the request. You may need to go to court in front of a judge. Some counties in Illinois schedule a court date immediately, others only if there has been an objection. How to prepare for the court appearance and which arguments you might be expected to make are covered in the Illinois form.
It Doesn't Hurt to Try
As you can see by this Illinois example, record sealing isn't easy. The person seeking secrecy is battling the public's First Amendment right to know about legal proceedings. Still, the mechanism for sealing and expunging records exists so that people can get on with their lives free of an undue burden. If you have a compelling reason why your records should be sealed, you owe it to yourself to ask the court.
- Changing public records is time consuming, and it starts with identifying the origin of the info.
- The internet has long presented a privacy dilemma, but it also means that you might be able to start your cleanup using online forms.
- A judge who won't seal a whole court record may agree to seal the portion with sensitive info.