There may be times in your life when you need to gain access to court records. These can be records from the criminal court, records from the civil court, court records from municipal, county, state and federal sources or even records from the traffic court. There are other court records that you might need access to as well.
You could do this manually of course by making representation to the courts and authorities concerned, but there is likely to be a charge and you will definitely have to wait for your records to arrive. In some cases you will need to visit the courts to access the records and these can be far away from you.
Another potential drawback with requesting court records manually is that you may not get all of the information that you require. It’s not unusual for mistakes to occur and it’s possible that you could end up with only overview details, and not the comprehensive information you really wanted. Some people even received records for the wrong individuals.
The Basics of Court Records
When a case goes to court there are detailed records kept of all of the proceedings. All information related to the court case as well as the case files become the official court records. If you want to find specific court records then the best way to do this is through an online search.
Each county has a clerk of the courts who keeps the court records. You can find court records in state and federal repositories, at the court where the trial took place and on an official court website if this exists.
Different Criminal Cases – Felony and Misdemeanor
You need to know that there are two different types of criminal cases which are felonies and misdemeanors. A felony charge is for a serious offence and the jail time for such offences is normally longer than a year. There can also be heavy fines imposed with felony cases.
If a crime is a lot less serious then this usually results in a misdemeanor charge. A person convicted of a misdemeanor charge is likely to spend less than a year in prison, if any jail time at all, and the penalties much lighter than with felonies.
Cases in the Civil Court
If two parties cannot resolve a dispute without the need for court proceedings then a civil case takes place in the court. It is the right of individuals and businesses to file a civil lawsuit if they believe there has been an infringement of their rights.
With civil court cases the records will contain the details of small claims judgments, the distribution of assets, bankruptcy proceedings, the proceedings of a divorce, property and tax liens, contract breaches, evictions and other information.
Cases in the Traffic Court
A law enforcement officer can issue a traffic ticket or a citation for a number of reasons such as reckless driving, DUI (driving under the influence), driving license invalid, speeding, driving with no insurance, aggressive driving and hit and runs.
If an individual wants to fight a traffic ticket or citation then they will take their case to the traffic court. There are records kept of the proceedings in the traffic court and these are accessible to the public. Conducting an online search for traffic records is the most effective way to find specific traffic court records.
Information in a Court Case
With each court case you will usually find a summary of the case, any assessment for financial costs and payments made, the parties involved in the case, any orders from the judge, court calendars, hearings and pleadings. You can easily find this court case information with an online search.
If an individual has a criminal history there will be criminal court records for that individual and these are public records. Various law enforcement agencies keep and update criminal records, and as a member of the public you can access them to check on the criminal history of an individual. It is best to search for criminal records online.
Who keeps Court Records?
There are four levels of court record keeping in the United States:
Each of these will have their own court records systems. You can access criminal and civil municipal and county court records by conducting a court case search online. This applies to any of the four levels. You need to know the location of the trial, the location of the perpetrator or the location of the case filing.
What Records are Public Information?
As a member of the public you can access most court documents including:
- Filings for bankruptcy
- Court cases
- Legal judgments
- Family cases
- Tax liens
- Criminal cases
- Cases in the small claims court
- Traffic cases
- Personal injury cases
There are some exceptions however such as:
- Matters of the juvenile court
- Sealed cases
- Probate court records
- Adoption cases
- Protective orders
Important things for you to know about Court Records
Now that you know the basics of court records there are some other important things that you need to be aware of:
You get the Facts
Any court record comprises facts and the people involved in a court case take an oath to tell the truth. So you can rely on any information in a court record such as sworn statements, allegations, affidavits and proceedings.
If you just interview people that associate with an individual you cannot rely on getting the facts all of the time. It is best to access court records if you want to know if someone has a criminal history or has had litigation involvement.
There are millions of Court Records created every year
Every year there are around 150 million cases filed in United States courts. You need to bear in mind that a lot of these will be small claims cases and traffic violations.
Know your Courts
To keep things simple you should be aware of the two separate court areas. These are the federal courts and the state courts. A federal court deals with cases where federal laws have been broken. This includes patent law, immigration law, social security law and bankruptcy law.
This is the order of the federal courts in the United States:
- Supreme Court
- Court of Appeals
- Special Courts
- District Court
The state courts in the United States deal with civil issues such as divorces, contract disputes and family disputes. The four state courts in superiority order are:
- Supreme Court
- Superior Court
- Special Courts
- Local Court
The special courts include social security, tax and social security courts.
In the United States, there are 94 district courts. You will normally find that a state has just one court but there are exceptions. An example of this is California where there are 4 federal courts.
There are more than 3,000 county courts in the United States. Some states have more counties than others and there are 250 counties in Texas for example. Usually you will find that there is one court per county but this isn’t always the case.
The state of New York is an example of more than one court per county. New York has 62 counties but there are 79 city courts, 62 family courts, 62 county courts, 62 surrogate courts and 1487 village and town courts.
Why is this important for you to know? Well if you want to access court records manually you need to be aware that there are thousands of courts across the country and at county level there could certainly be more than one court. Searching for the court records that you need to access online is far more effective.
Does the Individual have an Alias or use another Name?
Although databases of court records are a major step forward it’s always possible for mistakes to occur because humans enter the information into these databases. It is very possible to create a database record with a maiden name or a nickname rather than a birth name. So find out all of the different names associated with an individual.
If you are searching for criminal records then you are less likely to encounter the same problem as law enforcement officers will normally add aliases, maiden names or nicknames associated with individuals.
Not all Court Websites are the same
A lot of courts have their own websites with associated records databases but they will not all work the same. You need to know what search parameters work the best with all of the different websites.
Some of the databases will require you to enter names and related information in a specific way to retrieve the records you are looking for. Remember that there will be some mistakes in databases, so if you are going to use court websites then gather all of the relevant information about an individual first so you have the best chance.
To manually find Court Records it’s best to visit the Court
If you insist on conducting a manual search for court records then it is best if you visit the relevant court and obtain the documents you need. You will normally find a lot of information in court documents and it is helpful if you know where to look:
- Dockets – contain basic details in chronological order
- Indictment or complaint – has the initial details and the allegations
- Affidavits – case details
- Transcripts and depositions – legal arguments and sworn testimonies
- Final deposition – pleas, charges and how the case turned out
Finding the right court to visit for the records you want is not always easy. It may cost you a lot to travel there and some courts will charge for court record access. Searching online for your court records avoids these problems.
You can access court records in different ways such as finding the court where they keep the records you want or using a court website to search if this exists. Both of these methods take time and can be frustrating. In the United States you can find court records associated with individuals easily by using background check services online.
If you are looking for court records then you will find a lot of information in court dockets. A court docket contains records of court case proceedings. Court dockets tend to vary from one state to another in terms of the details recorded and the level of detail that they contain.
You may find that the court jurisdiction you are interested in has a free court docket system online. In other cases, the dockets may be in a database where you need to pay a subscription to gain access. The other way to locate court dockets is to physically visit the court.
Information contained in Dockets
Most people conduct docket research to find details about a specific case. Within a docket, it is usual to find details of the judge presiding over the case, lawyers involved in the case, the parties involved, the case proceedings and so on.
You should undertake docket research when you want to find out more about a trial. A lot of trials can last for a long time and there are usually a lot of events involved, so when you find the associated docket you will find a great deal of information.
The information contained in dockets does vary from one location to another but in general you should be able to find the following:
- Judge rulings
- Names of expert witnesses
- Jury instructions
- Transcripts of testimonies
How to Read Court Dockets
Most people are not interested in finding dockets from the appellate court. The opinions of the appellate court often form the basis of case law and you can usually find appellate court dockets in case law databases. There are some specialized databases that have appellate documents as well as oral arguments and briefs. In some situations you may find that appellate dockets are important for your research. After all they often contain the parties and lawyers involved, details of briefs filed, case numbers and important dates.
You will find basic details on all dockets no matter which jurisdiction they relate to. You should find that a docket includes a party name or case name and a docket number or case number.
You should be able to find the date of a specific event, some details about the event, the docketed date and the argument. Often event details are “one liner” summaries. It is also likely for you to find detailed information about the parties involved and their legal representatives. You should be able to find out which lawyers are involved in a case.
Federal Court Dockets
The federal government tries cases in Federal District Courts. A federal trial is likely to have many motions filed and the judge can issue a number of rulings. There may be many published opinions from one trial and you should be able to find all of the rulings, motions and other details in a docket.
Some court websites will make dockets available if they believe there is interest for the public. Otherwise, you can find federal court dockets in specialized databases. Federal cases use a standard numbering system which is helpful for locating specific cases. Here is an example:
The first two numerals are the year (2006) and the letters are the code of the case type. “CR” is a criminal case and “CV” is a civil case. The last five numbers are the case number. You need to know that the case number can relate to different cases even in different courts.
State Court Dockets
The first problem here is that courts have different names in different states. So in a particular state you can find a superior court, district court and a supreme court. There may be numerous levels of trial courts in a state.
Some states have free databases online where you can search for dockets. This is true of Washington and New York states. In other states there may be specialized databases where you can try and find court dockets.
If you want to find out if your state has an online database then just perform a Google search using something like “[state] case search” as the search term. You may be able to find websites that have information about specialized databases in particular states.
If you know the court of your specific case then you can contact the Records Clerk or Court Clerk and ask them where you can find court dockets. Most states have law libraries which can usually advise you on how you can locate court dockets in the state.
Finding Documents referenced on a Court Docket
After the federal courts started to use electronic filing methods you will find a lot of documents listed in dockets are PDF documents. There are a number of specialized databases with court dockets and the PACER database is probably the most reliable for locating court documents in electronic format.
It’s not so easy with state courts and it can be a real challenge to find the documents referenced to by court dockets. One of the best ways to find these documents is to call the court involved and tell them the case number and the information you are looking for.
Popular Specialized Databases
There are a few specialized databases that you can use to find court dockets. These include:
PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) – this is the official federal government specialized database. You can perform limited searches on PACER but if you have a docket number, name or date then you should be able to find the information you want.
Westlaw – here you will find dockets for federal court and some state court cases. It is easier to find information on Westlaw than it is on PACER.
Bloomberg – you can find federal dockets and some state dockets on the Bloomberg specialized database. There is a “Dockets” category in the menu system making it easier to search.
Lexis – again you can find federal and state dockets with Lexis. There is an advanced section where you can search for dockets.
Other Public Records
Court records are not the only records that you can access as a member of the public. There are other important records that you may want to find that will tell you more about a family member or even somebody that you intend to date.
The first thing to say about birth records is that finding them in the United States can often be difficult. If you know where the person was born then you can try local government offices to see if they have the information you require. Some local libraries have archives of birth records and it’s possible they can help.
Some counties and states have digitalized their birth records and you can search their databases to see if the details of the individual you are interested in are available. In cases where the person is not a family member you can find that a state will not allow you to access their birth records.
You may need access to death records for a variety of reasons and there are quite a few websites available for you to perform a search. Free websites exist and there are others that will require you to pay a small fee.
It can be a real challenge to find the right death records on these websites as usually the information is disorganized and you can waste a great deal of time. Some states have repositories that keep death records and you can usually obtain a copy of a death certificate.
But different states have different rules. Unless the deceased person was a family member you may find that local agencies will not allow access to death records. If there is a legal reason for you needing the death record then you will need to supply an official letter from an authorized agency.
Finding out if someone is married or not can be very important to you and the best way to know this for sure is to look for a record of marriage. If you know where the person is from, or have an idea where they got married, you can go to local churches to see if they have a marriage record for the person.
Another place you can look is town or county government agencies. When a marriage takes place there is usually and associated civil registration. Sometimes a local newspaper will have details of marriages as well. Some states have websites where you can search for marriage records but normally these are not well organized.
If it is important for you to find a specific divorce record then you can do it but it’s usually not easy. It will help if you know the full names of the spouses and even the maiden name of the woman. Knowing where the divorce took place is also important as well as the divorce date.
Some courts have websites where you can search for divorce records. You can also visit the court and ask for the information. Another option is to ask the Office of Vital Statistics. You will need to make an application and pay a fee. It can take up to 6 months for them to get back to you.
The easy way to find the Public Records you need
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