For Archivists and Government Officials
Recovering Lost or Stolen Public Records
Tennessee’s public records are created by state and local governments in conducting the business of the people of Tennessee. They document the work of public agencies and represent the evidence by which citizens may understand the consequences of decisions made by their government. In essence, they allow the governed to hold those who govern accountable. To that end, these documents must always remain available for public inspection.
Public records are public property. By law, some records must be maintained permanently by state and county governments. They must remain forever in public custody, and at no time can public records legally be owned, traded, sold, or bought by members of the general public. The government’s responsibility towards custodianship of public records is serious and mandated by law.
The private sale of these records is strictly prohibited according to TCA 39-16-504, the so-called replevin law. Replevin provides for the repossession from private hands of all public records removed from state, county, or municipal government offices. Violation of this law is a Class A misdemeanor.
Help the State of Tennessee Recover Lost and Stolen Public Records!
Help to ensure that Tennessee's state and local records (court records, wills, deeds, etc.) that have been lost or stolen are returned safely and securely to their appropriate counties, where they can be preserved, indexed, microfilmed, and made available to all citizens.
In some counties, public records were taken from courthouses years ago or were removed from their proper storage location in the county archive. Whenever such records are removed or stolen--sometimes for resale on web auction sites such as eBay--our shared history is lost and accountability in our government is compromised. State and county records are public property and cannot legally be owned by private individuals. Removing government documents from government custody is illegal.
If you are a document collector, dealer, or staff member at an archives, library, historical society, or museum, you can:
Staff members at TSLA's Archives Development Program will work with you to determine whether items are, indeed, government records that belong in a state or county archive. By avoiding the purchase of stolen records on eBay or through other auctions, you will ultimately save time, the loss of your money, and potential lawsuits. It will also ensure that we, as Tennessee citizens, continue to have access to the records of our own government.
Tennessee has a replevin law that provides for the restoration of alienated public records to their rightful custodians. Law enforcement authorities can reclaim these documents without any compensation to the would-be private owner. Contact TSLA if you have knowledge of the whereabouts of misplaced public records, or if you would like to report a lost or stolen public record. We can offer advice on how to proceed. We generally advise callers to contact their county attorney, county sheriff, or county archivist, depending on the unique circumstances of each county. Even though it is up to law enforcement authorities to prosecute theft, we have been able to aid several Tennessee counties in recovering their lost or stolen public records.
Sometimes, collectors like to obtain records relating to, for example, Civil War history or African-American slavery. For more information about the nationwide interest in these items, see our article on "eBay Sales of Public Records."
In some cases, well-meaning citizens have "saved" their county records from destruction or neglect years ago. In other cases, county archives did not exist, and the records were long stored in private hands. Now, however, most counties have a safe place to store county records, and the items need to be returned to their proper location. Please contact TSLA if you need help getting in touch with the proper state or county official in order to return public records in someone's possession.