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What are court records?

Court records are exactly what you probably think they are; a record of something that has happened in any US court. This can be something minor in a local court, through more serious cases heard in county and state courts and all the way to the US Federal Court itself. Any time a new case is brought to one of these courts, be that case civil or criminal, then a unique record is created for that case. Even if there is never a trial or a hearing, a record will still have been created if the case was brought to court in the first place. These documents and records are maintained by the clerk of the court and detail everything that occurs relating to that case inside the courtroom, even if the case goes on for many years.

Details such as names and addresses of the parties involved are recorded in these court documents, as well as information about the case itself and, of course, whatever the final judgement was, if one was made by the judge. Sometimes this might be a prison sentence, as in a criminal court record, or the awarding of compensation in civil cases. A lot of the information contained in these court records will be complicated, as they detail legal arguments, but the important information – name, the specific statue violation and the final ruling – will usually be found in a prominent place.

There are actually several different types of court records, depending on what kind of court cases are being heard. Everything from arrest records, juvenile cases, civil hearings and even divorce proceedings will be covered by a court record. If you don’t know what type of court record you are searching for, or which type of court the case was heard in, then this will make your search much more difficult, so you should try and find out as much information as possible before you even begin to contact the relevant agencies.

Why search on court records?

Most people assume that you would only search on court records if you wanted to know the end result of a particular civil or criminal case, but court records can also be used to track down specific and accurate personal information on a person, such as their date of birth, full name or a recent address. After all, the courts take this kind of information seriously and will have already done the hard work to ensure that the details recorded in the court files are correct. Of course, not everyone in the US has been through the court system, but you’d be surprised how many people will appear in court records, despite not having done anything wrong. For example, people who are divorced or who have been involved in custody battles over children will appear in family court documents, while anyone who has taken civil action against a company or individual will also have recorded their personal details in court documents. If you know or suspect that someone you are looking for has been divorced or sued another party at any time, then court records could be an excellent, comprehensive and accurate record to search for more information.

The main reason people want to search court records, and specifically court decisions, is to find out what the end result was in a certain civil or criminal case. Perhaps an employer suspects that a prospective or current employee has lied about their criminal record; in this case he can check the local court records to see if that employee’s name appears anywhere. Perhaps a woman has been told by her partner that he is divorced, but wants to make sure it is final before settling down; then she can search family court documents to find the proof she wants. In some cases, the need to search court documents can be quite serious, such as ensuring that people with convictions against children are not given positions in schools or making sure that a new business partner has no civil or financial rulings against them. No matter whether you need to search court records for basic information or more in-depth details on a person’s past, it will all be contained within the court files available to members of the public.

How to start searching court records

The end result of a records search might be a nice, simple court document, with all the information you need, but unfortunately getting started on this kind of project is anything but straightforward. First of all, you have to actually know quite a lot about the case or person you are searching for, such as where and in which type of court the case was heard. Court records for each of the different court systems (district, county, state and federal) are held in different places, whether that means physically in terms of the buildings where the paper copies of the court files are kept, or online, where you have to search in different places for each different court. If you are unsure which type of court head the particular case you are interested in, you might have a fruitless search through three databases before getting to the right one.

Once you have found the case you are interested in, make sure you note the unique number that it was assigned by the court. This number will appear on any court files that relate to your case and will make searching for further rulings or hearings much more simple. Once you have found your case, you need to work out what documents you will need from the court file so that you can begin to narrow your search. This depends on the type of case you are searching for and also the type of court, as some documents only appear in certain types of trial. The docket sheet of any court record is a really useful tool; it acts like a kind of contents page telling you what kinds of documents are contained within the file, so you should know quite quickly if you have the right document, without reading through pages and pages of complicated legal language.

Try and collect together as much information on the person or court record you are searching for before you even begin. This will save both you and the staff at the courthouse a lot of time. If you don’t have the unique court file number, try searching on the names of those involved, or find out roughly when the case was opened. In fact, just knowing if the case is still open or if it has been resolved will cut down the searching that you have to do.
Some older files have not yet been transferred onto computer systems in some parts of the US, so you will have no choice but to do a manual search, with the help and guidance of the staff at the courthouse. Even if the court record you are searching for is quite recent, you might want to start your search at the courthouse, provided that is convenient, as the staff there is likely to be very knowledgeable and will be able to pass on their own hints and tips. There are lots of internet sites that offer similar services, but many charge either a small fee to gain access to their own organized records or a much larger fee to essentially carry out the search on your behalf. If you are searching for a court record as part of a genealogy project, part of the fun is getting your hands dirty among dusty old case files! If you live a long way from where the case was originally heard, and it has not yet been transferred to that region’s computerised system, some courthouses will still help you out by sending you court documents and case files in the mail.

Common problems

Aside from the obvious problems of being unable to find the relevant court documents through an initial lack of information, there are other common problems that many researchers and members of the public experience while searching court records. Sometimes these records are not available to the general public, as often happens in juvenile cases or those that involve national security. On some occasions you may think you have all the right information about a person, but because they are trying to keep the fact that they have a criminal record a secret, they may have supplied you with an alias or incorrect personal details. A complicated search can end up taking a lot of time, and sometimes a lot of money, which can often prohibit everyone from having the free access to information that they should be allowed.