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Are South Carolina Records Public?

The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ensures that interested persons can access public records created by government entities. According to the law, the South Carolina public has a right to information about the performance of public officials and decisions made towards public policy formulation (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-15).

Per the act, a public record includes documentary materials prepared, retained, or used by a public body for public business. The definition provides examples such as books, photographs, papers, recordings, tapes, and all other data storage forms regardless of characteristics and physical form (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-20). Some examples include:

  • Public court records
  • Public sex offender information
  • Public South Carolina divorce records
  • Public bankruptcy records
  • Public property records

While most records are open to the public, some records are only selectively available. For instance, certified copies of Alabama death records are not open to the public. Access is restricted to certain eligible requesters, including the decedent’s family members and legal representatives of family members. However, the public may obtain uncertified copies after submitting a statement confirming the death, the county, and the date of death.

Who Can Access South Carolina Public Records?

According to the FOIA, “a person” has a right to access public records except as otherwise stated by law (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-30(A)(1)). The law defines a “person” as any individual, partnership, firm, organization, or association (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-20(b)). However, the right to public records is not open to persons incarcerated in any state or federal prison or correctional facility. Nonetheless, such individuals can obtain records required to exercise their constitutionally protected rights, such as records to be used as evidence in their favor in a criminal prosecution.

What is Exempted Under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act?

South Carolina provides several discretionary exemptions to its public disclosure rule. The Freedom of Information Act states that public bodies may prevent access to certain information but is not required to do so (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40). Some of these exemptions include:

  • Trade secrets, including commercially valuable and unpatented plans, processes, or formulas used to make, treat, or process trade commodities (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(1).
  • Personal information where disclosure would be an unreasonable invasion of a person’s privacy. These may include names, telephone numbers, addresses, audio recordings, and all other details considered private or sensitive (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(2)).
  • Records, including audio or video recordings, created or compiled for law enforcement purposes (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(3)). However, the law states that the exemption should only be to the extent that disclosure would:
  • Interfere with a law enforcement process
  • Deprive a person of their right to a fair trial or adjudication
  • Be an unnecessary invasion of personal privacy
  • Disclose the identity of a confidential source
  • Disclose procedures and techniques used for law enforcement prosecutions or investigations
  • Compromise the physical safety or life of any person
  • Disclose the content of intercepted communications not otherwise disclosed
  • Records specifically exempt from disclosure by any law or statute (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(4))
  • Documents that contain or are related to contracts used for proposed property sales or purchases. However, these records may be open to the public after the sale or purchase (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(5)).
  • Records of compensation paid by government agencies, except for part-time employees, persons receiving annual payments of at least $50,000, or persons paid honoraria or other compensation for performances or special appearances (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(6))
  • Correspondence, memoranda, and other working papers used by members of the General Assembly and their staff. However, summaries, reports, minutes, and other data considered public information under the FOIA must be open to public disclosure (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(8)).

Where Can I Access Public Criminal Court Records in South Carolina?

Public criminal court records are obtainable from various court clerks in South Carolina. Interested persons may access desired criminal court records by submitting official requests that describe the information contained on each record.

In South Carolina, most criminal cases are heard by Circuit Courts. However, Magistrate and Municipal Courts also have limited jurisdiction over criminal matters. Record seekers must first identify the overseeing court in each case before submitting a request for a nonconfidential record. Residents may also gain public access to free South Carolina court records through the case records search provided by the South Carolina Judicial Branch.

How Do I Find Public Records in South Carolina?

Interested persons can find public records by applying to public agencies for access. Although specifics may differ in some cases, requesters may consider the following steps on how to access public records in South Carolina:

  • Determine the type of record

Requesters can identify the desired record based on the information contained. For instance, information on land and real estate ownership may require requesting property records. Determining the type of record helps the requester find out whether or not the information is open to the public under the FOIA.

  • Identify the custodian agency

Since South Carolina agencies maintain different types of records, requesters must identify the applicable agency after deciding on the type of record. Persons seeking information on arrests or inmates must submit requests for arrest or inmate records to the relevant police department or sheriff’s office with jurisdiction. In the same way, requests for South Carolina marriage records should go to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).

  • Create a request

Under the FOIA, request methods vary. The law specifies the types of records that requesters may obtain in person without submitting a written request. These include:

  • Minutes of meetings for the previous six months
  • Certain types of agency records specified in S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-50(a)(8) for at least the previous 14 days
  • Documents with identifying information on incarcerated persons for the previous three months
  • All documents reviewed by or distributed to a member of the public agency during a public meeting for the previous six months

Apart from the above records, the FOIA specifies that interested persons should submit written requests (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-30(A)(2)(C)). However, some agencies may respond to oral requests at their discretion. Regardless of the agency’s preferred method, all requests should adequately describe the desired record. Requesters should also provide personal contact information along with their requests.

  • Submit the request

After creating the request, the individual must submit it to the relevant entity. Agencies may define submission options, offering instructions and requirements for each one. For example, persons submitting requests via mail may be required to provide a self-addressed and stamped envelope, along with a cheque or money order. The online method may cost additional processing fees and may not be used to receive certified copies. Requesters must follow each agency’s specific instructions to avoid delays or denials.

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 South Carolina?

The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act does not include specific costs for public requests. According to the law, agencies may establish and charge reasonable fees equal to the actual cost of search, retrieval, redaction, or production of the requested record. The act also states that each public agency must establish a fee schedule and post it online (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-30(B)).

Furthermore, fees must be uniform for copies of the same record and should not exceed the prorated hourly salary of the lowest-paid staff with the necessary skill to fulfill the request. Also, agencies may require a 25% advance payment before fulfilling the request.

The law bars public entities from charging copy fees for records delivered in an electronic format. However, if a record is not maintained in an electronic format and the agency agrees to produce it in that format, the agency may charge the requester for staff time. Generally, public records should be available to requesters at the lowest possible cost.

How Do I Look Up Public Records in South Carolina for Free?

The FOIA encourages agencies to reduce or waive request fees if the agency decides that doing so primarily benefits the general public. If the requester believes that the record is in the public interest, the person may apply for a waiver. Free public records South Carolina agencies maintain may also be accessible via online repositories. An example is the free Public Sex Offender Registry maintained by the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division.

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

Under the FOIA, no statement of purpose is required when requesting South Carolina public records. However, state law may contain some restrictions for the use of public records. For instance, the South Carolina Family Privacy Protection Act prohibits the use of information obtained from a public agency for commercial solicitation (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-2-50(A)). In these cases, agencies may ask requesters to provide statements of purpose.

Furthermore, persons requesting registration and licensing information from the Department of Motor Vehicles must state reasons for the requests (S.C. Code Ann. § 56-3-510). The requester must also confirm that the requested record will not be used for any purpose related to telephone solicitation or telephone marketing.

What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?

Although the South Carolina FOIA provides no administrative options for appealing denied requests for public records, it states that “a citizen” may apply to the Circuit Court for injunctive relief, declaratory judgment, or both, to challenge any violation of the act. Interested persons should note that the petition must not be later than one year after the alleged violation or one year after a public session vote, whichever is later (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-100(A)).

After the Circuit Court receives the application, its chief administrative judge must schedule an initial hearing within ten days. If the court cannot decide at the initial hearing, it must create a scheduling order to finalize the case within six months of the initial application. However, the court may extend this period for good cause. If the court rules in the requester’s favor, it may award reasonable attorney’s fees and other related costs.

How to Remove Names From Public Search Records

Removing names from South Carolina public search records is a complex (and oftentimes impossible) process. In many cases, options available to interested parties may be considerably limited. However, South Carolina law allows for the expungement of certain records concerning charges, arrests, or convictions.

An expungement order removes related information from a person’s criminal record. These details cannot be obtained by the general public and potential employers, allowing affected persons to legally state that no such records exist. However, parties must note that the records may still be available for law enforcement purposes in limited instances.

South Carolina provides restrictions to expungement eligibility. For instance, expungement is possible for a misdemeanor offense if it carries a maximum sentence of 30 days or a $1,000 fine. Also, the person must wait three years and not have any convictions in that period, or five years if the conviction if the misdemeanor conviction is for domestic violence. Also, persons convicted before their 25th birthday are only eligible for expungement after five years of completing the sentence, if the expungement was not for a sex offense. Generally, convictions for felonies and heinous crimes are not eligible for expungement. Eligible persons may begin by applying to any of the 16 Solicitor’s Offices in South Carolina.

What is the Best Public Records Search Database?

No single South Carolina records registry contains all government-generated public records. The best public records search database differs according to the desired record. For example, parties may perform a Greenville County public records search for inmates by providing the inmate’s first or last name on the county’s inmate search page. Similarly, the best option for a Richland County public records search for property records is the property inquiry page provided by the county assessor’s office. Parties may also consider the circuit case search platform provided by the clerk’s office as the best public records search database to conduct a Charleston County public records search for court information.

How Long Does It Take to Obtain a South Carolina Public Record?

South Carolina public agencies have ten days (excluding weekends and legal public holidays) to respond to a record request. The agency’s response should state its determination on the record’s availability and also provide reasons, especially where the agency concludes that the record is not open to public disclosure. Requesters should note that the ten-day timeframe extends to 20 days if the record is more than 24 months old at the time of the request (S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-30(C)). If the agency grants the request, the requester must receive the records not more than 30 calendar days from the date of the agency’s final determination. For records older than 24 months, the agency has a maximum of 35 calendar days to produce the records.