Sometimes called a case file or court file, a court record contains all the information related to the court proceedings for a particular case. Generally, court records are open to the public, though the extent of that availability varies by federal and state law, as well as extenuating factors such as adoption cases, juvenile cases, and sealed or expunged records.
Contents of Court Records
The exact contents of a court record depend on the specific case, including whether it is criminal or civil.
Some of the most common contents include:
- Official complaint of the violation or infraction.
- Original documents supporting probable cause.
- Officers must present probable cause when obtaining a warrant from a judge.
- Executed arrest warrant and uniform arrest report.
- Documents related to the summons and complaint.
- Information related to any indictment.
- Official determination of the defendant's competence to stand trial.
- Any suspension of prosecution.
- Court exhibits.
- Word-for-word testimony taken by the court reporter or stenographer.
- Notice of rights.
- Written plea information, including “nolo contendere" or “no contest."
- Any documents outlining programs intended as plea agreements or penalties, such as those for:
- Youth offenders.
- Drug and alcohol education.
- Family violence counseling.
- The final judgment, including any other penalties such as fines, jail time, probation, or parole.
Additionally, court records related to civil matters may include additional information, such as:
- Marriage or divorce details.
- Legal name changes.
- Property ownership or transfer of ownership.
Why Search Court Records
As you can tell from above, court records contain a ton of information about a specific court case.
However, why is this information useful to anyone but the court, defendant, and prosecution?
A number of entities can use court records to:
- Conduct background checks.
- Background checks are useful (and sometimes required) for potential employers, college admissions, and landlords.
- Access criminal records.
- Like background checks, criminal records are useful (or required) for potential employers, landlords, and college admissions, as well as government organizations such as the military and law enforcement agencies.
- Prove property ownership.
- Generally, this is helpful in cases when a court proceeding granted or transferred property ownership.
- File for a marriage license.
- You might need another court document—specifically, a divorce record—to prove you aren't currently married.
- Determine DMV-related matters.
- Some employers (mostly those who require employees to drive company vehicles) need to know your driving history.
- Likewise, driver license and motor vehicle agencies often use your driving history and current driver license status to determine whether you're a “problem driver" and are eligible for a driver's license in that state.
Additionally, some folks just want to conduct personal research to learn more about a person's life. Generally, this type of research is done for genealogy and family tree purposes.
Accessing Court Records
Unless the court record is a criminal matter and the crime has been sealed or expunged, most people can access criminal court records; however, civil matters aren't always public court records and, if absolutely necessary, you might need a court order to access them.
As far as accessing court records is concerned, you can first try the local government website (usually a courthouse website) for the county in which the court record is housed, or you can browse the official state links maintained by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).
No website option? You can always speak with a court clerk about accessing the record in person.
Additional ways to access court records include using the:
- United State Courts' Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system.
- PACER can provide case and docket information for federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts, as well as help you locate courts throughout the area.
- The Research Our Records section of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
- Here you can find bankruptcy, civil, criminal, and court of appeals records.
How quickly you receive a copy of the court order depends on which method you use, of course, and whether you want a certified paper document or are content with viewing the report online.
Also, regardless of the method you choose, be prepared to pay a fee for the record.
Third-Party Online Court Records
Aside from ordering a court report online using an official government website, you can choose a non-government third-party company.
However, before you order, understand why you need the court records. Do you want them for your own purposes, or do you need them for official reasons? Always go with an official, certified government copy if you need the record for official reasons. Otherwise, third-party companies can easily (and often quickly) provide the information you need.