Public Records & Personal Privacy
With the advent of the Internet and the global economic infrastructure, information has become one of the most valuable commodities to individuals, firms, groups, and governments. The consolidated Napa County offices of Assessor, Recorder, County Clerk and Registrar of Voters maintain and make available a great deal of information about individuals, financial transactions and property characteristics and values. With very few exceptions, California is an “open records” state which means that documents relating to property transfers, financing and liens; property ownership, property characteristics, and value data are public record.
The current major exceptions are: the County Assessor is permitted to keep information obtained from property owners in the valuation process confidential; certified copies of birth, marriage and death certificates can only be given to authorized persons with others receiving an informational copy; certain birth records are subject to being sealed in cases of adoption; marriage information under certain very limited conditions is treated confidentially and voter registration and voting participation data is restricted to use for election purposes only and by written application.
Benefits of Public Information
While each of us as individuals want our privacy respected, we also want to be able to have information about others to determine their creditworthiness; to find out if they belong on our family tree; to contact them to complain about their barking dogs or to sell them something and, if we are a candidate, to know if they are registered to vote in case we want to influence them. Many times we want organizations to be able to find out about us: our marital status for Social Security or pension purposes; our birth data for a passport or little league; death certificates for clearing title to property or obtaining benefits payable on death.
As custodian of these records, the Assessor-Recorder/County Clerk/Registrar is neutral on whether the information is public or confidential since that decision is left to the legislature and the courts. However, in making decisions about the electronic dissemination of records, the custodian is in the middle of the conflict between the goal of an open society based on easy communication and the concern of individuals to protect their privacy.
To ensure that assessments are equitable, the assessed value of the property and the amount of property tax are public records. Deeds and liens are placed on public record so that anyone can check the ownership of property or the financial status of a person or corporation. The fact that property owner names and addresses are public information also means that they can become targets of junk mail. Precinct lists contain registered voters’ name, address, and party affiliation so that candidates can knock on their doors or send them mail, but it also means that they may receive more mail and attempts to influence them than they want.
With modern technology, many of these public records are listed, but not displayed, on the Internet so that certified copies of deeds, liens, birth, marriage and death certificates can be ordered online. Assessment records are now made widely available by firms that specialize in providing information to realtors, mortgage companies and others. California law prohibits the posting of the address of certain officials to the internet which means that no addresses can be posted as we are not aware of whether an owner falls into the restricted category. The easy access to information that many of us need and enjoy can conflict with our desire for personal privacy. We must keep these competing goals in mind as we participate in creating the ground rules for the coming electronic information age.