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Are Montana Records Public?

Except where exempted by law, most of the records generated or maintained by Montana government officials are open to the public. The Montana Public Records Act defines public records as any public writing or item received or sent in connection with official business transactions. Records produced by government bodies may exist in different forms, including photographs, videotapes, and electronic mail. Some examples of public records in Montana include:

  • Montana inmate records
  • Montana sex offender records
  • Public Montana arrest records
  • Montana court records
  • Public Montana property records
  • Montana divorce records
  • Montana death records
  • Public Montana birth records

Who Can Access Montana Public Records?

Almost anyone can inspect or obtain copies of a Montana public record. The Montana Public Records Act asserts that “every person” has the right to request a copy of any state public information. This provision includes state and non-state residents. Record seekers who wish to obtain copies of a record can do so by submitting a clear request to the custodial office. Nevertheless, public officials may prevent the disclosure of a public record if it contains information that may jeopardize individual safety or public safety.

What is Exempted Under the Montana Public Record Law?

Montana public records law only provides access to public records that do not violate the privacy of an individual. Public records containing personally identifiable information are regularly protected from public disclosure. In line with the Montana Code (§ 39-71-224) records are considered exempt if:

Federal law or regulations prohibit access to any record containing information that falls under exemptions. In such instances, the records unit or department may opt to make only the non-exempt information accessible to the requester. As a result of the above, there exists no specific exemption list. Some likely examples of such exempted records include:

  • Police investigatory records
  • Student records
  • Tax records
  • Government personnel records
  • Adoption records
  • Trade secrets
  • Commercial/financial information

These records may, nevertheless, be accessible by the public if it can be clearly proven in court that the public interest outweighs the right to individual privacy.

How Do I Find Public Records in Montana?

The state of Montana records law grants its citizens access to public records as a legal right. Montana constitution specifies access for any interested member of the public and this supersedes the records law. Requesters can find needed information by following these steps.

Step 1: Determine the type of record required.

Many types of records exist in the state of Montana. Record requests must be based on detailed knowledge of the exact information required and the specific type of records. This is vital in avoiding vague and confusing record requests.

Criminal History Records: These types of records comprise information ranging from arrests, convictions, imprisonments to probation statuses of different Montanan citizens. The Montana Department of Justice is the primary custodian of criminal history information for the Montana State. They receive and process records requests from interested members of the public. These requests attract non-refundable fees depending on the specific request type. Requests can be named-based or fingerprint-based.

Vital records: These types of records retain and maintain information on events of daily life. Information on such events as births, marriages, divorces, and deaths are captured and recorded for the state of Montana. The Vital Records Office under the auspices of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is responsible for these records.

Court records: Information from the Montana court records consist of documents from civil and criminal court proceedings. Other examples of information available from this records category are transcripts of hearings, dockets, and information associated with court administrative processes. Public court records for the state of Montana are retained and archived by the Office of the Court clerk for the local court under Montana Judicial Branch.

Step 2: Determine the government agency with the records.

The State of Montana has many different public records that are retained and maintained by various public agencies or departments. These records can be readily retrieved by identifying the specific public agency officially responsible for maintaining those particular records. In Montana, for example, vital records are maintained by the Vital Records Office under the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, information on agriculture is compiled and maintained by the Montana Department of Agriculture, while revenue and tax records are held in the custody of the Montana Department of Revenue

Step 3: Determine accessibility.

The state records law provides no specific list of exemptions. The general basis for exemptions centers on the right to privacy of an individual. The law, however, overrules an individual's right to privacy if greater public interest can be clearly proven to exist. Requesters must, therefore, determine the accessibility of the records containing their required information. Also, because of the case-by-case approach adopted by the courts, an attorney may be required to determine if records are exempt or not. Some of the exemptions may be accessible to authorized persons such as the subject of the records themselves. The subject of an exempted record may also choose to waive confidentiality and grant access to the requester. Accessibility to birth and marriage certificates may not be possible until after thirty years. The immediate relatives of the subject of an exempt records request may also be authorized to have access at a fee.

Certain records may be under seal and thus, exempt from public disclosure. Examples of exempt records include private criminal history records. Montana law enforcement officers can have legal access to records under seal. The members of the public can only access records under seal when backed by court order upon showing good cause.

Step 4: Determine the Availability.

Montana constitution and records law maintain strict legal positions on the right of individuals to access public records. Although online and physical access is available, nevertheless, not all records may be entirely retrievable via online means. The State’s broad exemptions guidelines may also obstruct access to certain categories of records without recourse to legal actions. Certain records may require the requester to show up physically at the address of the public agency in custody of the records.

Step 5. Contact the Record Holder

Making a records request:

Most public agencies in Montana make provision for requesters to initiate their record requests remotely (online). Standardized online request forms are usually made available by these agencies as well. Requests for law enforcement information may necessitate a declaration of purpose by the requester ( that is whether such purpose is professional, business, or official in nature). Requests can be submitted in person. It may also be sent by mail, hand delivery, email, or fax.

Providing a valid ID for records on self:

The requester can be required to provide a valid means of identification. For example, to acquire a Montana birth or death certificate, a list of suggested identification is required. This identification must either be:

  • A photo ID with visible signature, or
  • Two forms of ID with one of them bearing a signature.

In the absence of these, a notarized Montana Office of Vital Statistics Statement to Identify Certified Birth or Death Certificate Applicant form can be used. However, only the original letter is acceptable.

Payment of fees:

Montana laws clearly disallow the designated records access officer from charging any fee to view records. The Secretary of State can, in line with the law, set the fee limits. He can also determine filing and copying fees for the requested records, which must be paid in advance and documented. Electronic fees are broadened to include charges for equipment use, database maintenance, duplication means, and hourly labor (after the first half-hour). It may also take into account the time required to collate the information as well as any customization of records agreed upon. Fees are also not charged to public officers or legislative members who request records in the course of executing their duties

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 Montana?

The exact cost of a public record largely depends on the type of request. Most agencies charge no fee for physical on-site inspections. However, Montana state laws allow public agencies to set and charge a fee for requests that require “filing” and/or “copying.” This fee must be paid in advance of the search. Unlike some states, the Montana Code does not places no limit on the how the fee must be. But it stipulates that the fee must not exceed the actual costs directly required to process the request in a cost-effective and affordable manner. The state code also places no restrictions on the number of permissible copies.

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

Access to free Montana public records varies with different agencies. While some government offices provide public terminals where residents can view records for free, others charge a fee for copies. Generally, most of the records provided online can be viewed at no cost. For instance, the Montana Department of Justice mainains an online portal that contains public information on sex offenders. Anyone can look up these records for free. Similarly, the Montana Department of Correction provides free and open access to an inmate locator tool. Record seekers can search for inmate information using a full name or a known ID number.

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

While a statement of purpose is generally not a requisite for obtaining copies of a public record, access to some records may require the provision of a valid government-issued I.D. In addition, government officials may place restrictions on the sale of mailing lists if it is being used for commercial purposes.

What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?

Unlike some states, Montana statutes do not specify sanctions for cases where citizens are denied access to a public record. That said, record seekers have the right to challenge a government agency if they believe they are being illegally denied access to a record. Citizens who succeed in court may be awarded damages and associated costs commensurate with the attorney fees.

How to Remove Names From Public Search Records?

Although the process of removing names from a public search can be highly complex, the state of Montana provides several avenues through which this can be done. Depending on the type of record, citizens may be able to alter records by applying for an expungement.

Expunging a Record

Montana’s expungement law provides a legal solution for citizens who wish to remove misdemeanor criminal convictions from their records. If granted, the expungement process allows courts to order the deletion, erasure, destruction and sealing of all records of a specified offense. This includes court pleadings, sentencing documents, arrest records, notes, photographs, and court filings maintained by courts, the Department of Justice, the prosecuting attorney, and any law enforcement agency. To qualify for expungement, applicants must have successfully completed all parts of the sentence and waited for at least five years.

What is the Best Public Records Search Database?

The best public records search database largely depends on the type of record. Citizens can achieve the best results by contacting the government office in charge of maintaining the record, as these agencies are more likely to have recently updated and more accurate information. For instance, the Montana Department of Justice provides an online tool for searching criminal history public records and the Montana Department of Correction provides online access to inmate information via a searchable offender database.

How Long Does It Take to Obtain a Montana Public Record?

Montana state law places no limit on how long a public office must take to respond to a record request. However, most requests are typically processed within 7 to 10 days. Citizens can cut down the amount of time it takes to obtain a public record by providing enough information to facilitate the search. Requests with non-specific information may take longer to process. Similarly, public officials may take longer to provide records if the sought information is stored in archives or at an off-site location.