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Are Wisconsin Records Public?

According to the Wisconsin Open Records Law, most records generated by government agencies are considered public and open to interested persons. Anyone seeking these records may submit an official request to the record custodian at the government agency after fulfilling specific request requirements. Examples of available Wisconsin public records include inmate records, bankruptcy records, and court records. Wisconsin divorce records and sex offender information are also considered public.

The Open Records Law describes public records as any material containing information created or kept by a public authority, regardless of its characteristics or physical form. Public records include, but are not limited to, handwritten or typewritten documents, photographs, recordings, charts, tapes, and data on electronic storage devices.

Wisconsin law states that all interested persons are entitled to the “greatest possible” amount of information regarding government affairs, and the official acts of employees and officers representing the government. The law also states that each agency must consider it an essential part of its functions to provide interested requesters with public information (Wis. Stat. § 19.31).

Who Can Access Wisconsin Public Records?

The Wisconsin Open Records Law grants public access to all requesters. According to the law, “any requester” has a right to inspect and obtain copies of any public record (Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(a)). The law defines a requester as any person requesting access to a public record, except an incarcerated or committed person. However, Wis. Stat. § 19.32(3) states that restrictions on incarcerated or committed persons may not apply when such persons request records on themselves or their minor children, if not otherwise denied by law.

What Is Exempted Under the Wisconsin Open Records Law?

The Wisconsin Open Records Law provides several exemptions to public disclosure. In these cases, record custodians may completely withhold some records or redact parts that contain sensitive information. Generally, Wisconsin law states that custodians must balance the public’s interest with any possible harm derivable from such disclosure. Wis. Stat. § 19.36 describes the following exemptions:

  • Records Considered Confidential by Law: All records considered confidential by federal or state law are exempt from public disclosure. If a record contains exempt and non-exempt portions, the public agency may redact the exempt portions before providing public access (Wis. Stat. § 19.36(1)).
  • Law Enforcement Records: Generally, Wisconsin law supports public access to law enforcement records. However, record custodians at law enforcement agencies must prevent access to all law enforcement records considered confidential by state law, federal law, or federal regulations. For instance, records that contain personally identifiable information collected or maintained as part of a complaint or investigation, are not public. Exempt law enforcement records also include information that may identify a confidential informant or endanger persons or property Wis. Stat. § 19.36(2).
  • Computer Programs and Data: In Wisconsin, computer programs are not open to inspection or copying. However, Wis. Stat. § 19.36(4) provides public access to all materials used as input for computer programs and the resulting products.
  • Trade Secrets: Specific or entire portions of records containing trade secrets are not open for public disclosure. According to Wis. Stat. § 134.90(1)(c), a trade secret is any information that derives actual or potential independent economic value from being unknown to persons that may also derive economic value from it.
  • Building Plans: This exemption covers records that contain specifications for all currently or potentially state-leased or state-owned buildings and facilities. Record custodians must prevent the public disclosure of such information unless the Wisconsin Department of Administration states otherwise.
  • Employee Personnel Records: The Wisconsin Open Records Law prohibits access to some employee personnel records. Under Wis. Stat. § 19.36(10) the following information on employees are private:
  • Personal identifying information, including an employee’s home address, phone number, email address, or social security number, except with the employee’s permission
  • Information about a current investigation involving a criminal offense or misconduct
  • Employment examination information, except the person’s exam score - if not otherwise exempted
  • Information used for performance evaluation, recommendation, staff management planning, letters of reference, salary adjustment, and management bonus plans
  • Financially Identifying Information: Records are exempt from public disclosure if they contain personally identifying financial information. Per Wis. Stat. § 19.36(13), these include a customer or account number with a financial institution, debit card number, or credit card number.

Where Can I Access Public Criminal Court Records in Wisconsin?

Interested persons can access Wisconsin public criminal court records from Circuit Courts, the Court of Appeals, or the Supreme Court. Criminal court records that do not contain confidential or sensitive information are available from the clerk at each court, requestable in person, by mail, phone, or fax. Each request should contain a detailed description of the record, including names, dates, charges, attorney’s name, and the court’s disposition. Obtaining copies of criminal court records may cost varying fees.

Record seekers may also find criminal court records online. Parties can access free Wisconsin court records online from the judiciary’s Case Search platform. The platform allows requesters to search Circuit Court cases, matters pending before the Supreme Court, and cases finalized by the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.

How Do I Find Public Records in Wisconsin?

The Wisconsin Open Records Law ensures that all requesters can inspect or get copies of non-confidential public records. Interested persons must contact public agencies that create or maintain these records to inspect or obtain copies. Agencies usually offer varying request methods, specific application requirements, and submission options. Regardless, record seekers may use the steps below when unsure of how to do a public records search in Wisconsin:

  • Figure out the desired record type

Wisconsin public records cover a wide range of options. Several agencies maintain different types of records depending on their statutory functions and interagency relations. Interested persons must first decide on the required type of information to determine that the record is open to public disclosure under the Wisconsin Open Records Law.

  • Identify the custodian agency

Deciding on the type of record helps the requester find the relevant custodian agency. Public entities such as sheriff’s offices maintain records, including arrest records and reports on incidents under its purview. Similarly, persons seeking Wisconsin death records must contact the Register of Deeds Office in the relevant county or the Wisconsin Vital Records Office.

  • Create a request

A request must reasonably describe the requested record. According to Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(h), any request not limited to a specific subject matter and length of time is not considered sufficient. Furthermore, Wisconsin does not require that requests be written. However, record seekers must note that in the event of a denial, no one can begin an action to enforce an oral request.

  • Submit the request

Requesters may submit requests that properly identify desired records. In most cases, public agencies offer in-person, fax, mail, phone, and online options. Requests may also cost varying fees, depending on the preferred method of submission and delivery, type of record, and the volume of the record.

Other specifics may also apply. For instance, mail requests usually require self-addressed and stamped envelopes. Online requests may require credit or debit cards and sometimes cost additional transaction or processing fees. Furthermore, certified records may cost more than plain copies and may be unavailable to phone, fax, and online requesters.

Using Third-Party Sites

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 Wisconsin?

The Wisconsin Open Records Law allows public agencies to impose copy fees not more than the actual cost of reproducing the record (Wis. Stat. § 19.35(3)(a)). Furthermore, public agencies cannot charge a fee for locating a record unless doing so costs $50 or more (Wis. Stat. § 19.35(3)(c)). Per Wis. Stat. § 19.35(3)(f), record custodians may require prepayment for copying a public record if the total amount is more than $5. Agencies may also ask for mailing or shipping fees to cover delivery costs. However, at their discretion, public agencies may waive or reduce copy fees if the agency determines that doing so is in the public interest.

How Do I Look Up Public Records in Wisconsin for Free?

The Wisconsin Open Records Law does not have provisions for inspection fees. Consequently, persons looking up public records for free can ask the custodian agency to permit an inspection. Other options, including requesting physical copies, may cost copy or search fees.

Another option is to visit an online database. Some agencies maintain internet registries for access to free public records Winsconsin agencies generate or maintain. An example is the searchable database compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, containing information on registered sex offenders in the state. Interested persons can also conduct a Waukesha County public records search for non-confidential county court records.

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

Requesters do not need to state any purpose for their requests. According to Wis. Stat. § 19.35(3)(1)(i), a record custodian can not refuse access to a public record because the requester did not provide a statement of purpose. However, record custodians may require requesters to present acceptable identification if the desired record is at a private residence, or as required by federal law or regulations.

What Happens if I am Refused a Public Records Request?

There are two options available to requesters when denied access to public records. According to Wis. Stat. § 19.37(1), persons denied access to all or part of a public record after submitting written requests, may do one or both of the following:

  • Bring a mandamus action against the agency, asking a court to order access to the record. If necessary, the court may allow the parties or their attorneys to review the record before passing judgment.
  • Send a written request to the district attorney of the county where the record is located, or ask the attorney general, to bring a mandamus action for the court to order access.

Anyone challenging a request denial must bring an action of mandamus within 3 years, according to Wis. Stat. § 893.93(1m)(a), since no other statute provides an alternative. However, this time limit reduces to 90 days if the requester is incarcerated or committed.

If the court rules in the requester’s favor, the court will award reasonable attorney fees, a minimum of $100 for damages, and other costs. Although incarcerated or committed persons may also receive damages, the court will not enforce a minimum payment (Wis. Stat. § 19.37(2)(a)). Requesters may also receive the actual value of sustained damages if the court finds that the public agency’s denial was intentional or willful. Furthermore, the court may award punitive damages to the requester if the court finds that the public agency or record custodian delayed or denied the request carelessly or without good cause Wis. Stat. § 19.37(3).

How to Remove Names From Public Search Records?

Legal options available to persons looking to remove their names from public search records include sealing and expungement. Wisconsin law allows interested persons to petition courts for record expungement. However, this option is only possible in very limited cases.

For instance, under Wis. Stat. § 973.015(1m)(a)(1), individuals are eligible for expungement if they were younger than 25 at the time they committed the offense, and the maximum imprisonment for the offense is six years. At the person’s sentencing, the judge may order that the conviction be expunged when the person completes their sentence. However, this is restricted to minor, nonviolent first felonies and misdemeanors.

Wisconsin also allows record expungement for a person adjudicated delinquent or convicted of prostitution, if the person was a victim of a sex trafficking act and committed the crime for this reason (Wis. Stat. § 973.015(2m)(a)). In many other cases, a Wisconsin expungement may be unobtainable.

An approved expungement purges conviction records of the person’s name and identity. In Wisconsin, courts will not consider an expunged record at a subsequent hearing or for an impeachment trial. However, parties must note that the expungement process caters to court records and may not remove records held by prosecutors or law enforcement agencies.

What Is the Best Public Records Search Database?

There is no Wisconsin records registry considered the best public records search database in the state. Therefore, the best public records search database is the database maintained by the agency that handles the desired record. For instance, the best place for a Milwaukee County public records search for real estate documents is the online service provided by the Register of Deeds. Similarly, the best option for a Dane County public records search for inmates is the Sheriff’s Office’s Current Residents page.

How Long Does It Take To Obtain a Wisconsin Public Record?

The Wisconsin Open Records Law does not specify a time frame for obtaining public records. However, Wis. Stat. § 19.35(4)(a) mandates public agencies to respond to requests “as soon as practicable and without delay”. The agency’s response may either fulfill the request or notify the requester that all or some parts of the record are unavailable. If the request is oral, the agency may orally deny the request. However, if the requester demands a written denial, the agency must provide one within 5 business days Wis. Stat. § 19.35(4)(b).