Understanding Court Records and Who Can Access Them
One of the most common questions asked by clients who face criminal charges is whether the public will be able to access their records. The answer is that it often depends on what court records are involved.
If you are not certain whether records are open to the public, it is a wise idea to speak with an experienced attorney.
The Freedom of Information Act
Both the federal and state government decide on what type of public access will be granted for court records as well as other government documents. In 1966, the Freedom of Information Act was signed into law by President Johnson to protect the rights of any individual to request access to federal agency records. There are, however, some notable exceptions to the general preference to grant public access to government documents.
The Public Nature of Civil and Criminal Records
Most legal proceedings are public. Courtrooms are often open to the public. While civil lawsuits are considered public records, records related to criminal trials can also be released to the press. As a result, if you are charged with a criminal offense or are involved in a civil lawsuit, at least some information will likely be made available to the public, which often occurs through the PACER system.
To control the amount of information that is disclosed, it is often a wise idea to obtain the assistance of an experienced attorney who has knowledge about public access laws and in some situations might be able to help further restrict public access.
Exceptions to Public Court Records
There are numerous exceptions to the public nature of records. Some of the situations that frequently result in records being kept private rather than public include the following:
- When minors are involved in a civil or criminal trial, it is rare for the child’s name to appear in the public record
- In the case of violent criminal cases, it is common for the name of the person being charged to be kept private.
Expunging Public Records
In some cases, it is possible to seal and expunge a court record so that it is no longer available to the public. While sealing a record greatly reduces the number and type of people who have access to information about a charge, expunging a record wipes details about the offense from a person’s record.
While most federal crimes are not capable of being expunged, there is one narrow exception, which is that first-time drug offenders are capable of applying for a sentence of probation after a conviction. If probation is completed without any problems, the court can expunge a person’s record.
No matter if you decide to pursue expungement or sealing of a record, it is almost always a wise idea to obtain the assistance of an experienced attorney.
Speak with an Experienced Lawyer
If you have questions about whether your records will be open to the public, you should not hesitate to speak with an experienced attorney. At the Federal Criminal Law Center , we have helped numerous people navigate complicated cases and understand the many challenges that can arise.
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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.
- Youth offenders.
- Drug and alcohol education.
- Family violence counseling.
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.
are useful (and sometimes required) for potential employers, college admissions, and landlords.
- 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.
- Generally, this is helpful in cases when a court proceeding granted or transferred property ownership.
- You might need another court document—specifically, a divorce record—to prove you aren’t currently married.
- 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.
- 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.
Find court specific information to help you file a case electronically and developer resources.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What is PACER?
The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service provides electronic public access to federal court records. PACER provides the public with instantaneous access to more than 1 billion documents filed at all federal courts.
Registered users can:
- Search for a case in the federal court where the case was filed, or
- Search a nationwide index of federal court cases.
The PACER Service Center can assist you at (800) 676-6856 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. CT Monday through Friday or by email at [email protected] .
What if I cannot find the case I am looking for?
If you cannot locate a case when searching a federal court’s case records by case number or party name, try using the PACER Case Locator. This will generate a listing of nationwide court locations and case numbers where a party is involved in federal litigation. If you cannot find the case party through the PACER Case Locator, then contact the federal court where you think the case was filed for assistance.
How much does it cost to access documents using PACER?
Access to case information costs $0.10 per page. Depending on format, billable pages are calculated in two different ways. For HTML-formatted information, a billable page is calculated using a formula based on the number of bytes extracted (4,320 bytes = 1 billable page). For PDFs, the actual number of pages is counted (1 PDF page = 1 billable page).
The cost to access a single document is capped at $3.00, the equivalent of 30 pages for documents and case-specific reports like docket report, creditor listing, and claims register. The cap does not apply to name search results, reports that are not case-specific, and transcripts of federal court proceedings.
NOTE: If you accrue $30 or less of charges in a quarter, fees are waived for that period. 75 percent of PACER users do not pay a fee in a given quarter.
The $0.10 per-page charge is based on the number of pages that result from each search and accessing each requested report or document online. The charge is not based on printing that search or document. Read some examples of how charges are generated:
Enter party name “johnson, t” and receive two pages of matches. The charge is $0.20.
Enter case number 01-10054 and select Docket Report. The docket is 10 pages, so the charge is $1. You may enter a date range to limit the number of pages by displaying entries for the date range rather than all entries in the report.
Select a link within the docket report to view a document. The PDF document is five pages, so the charge is $0.50.
This charge applies to the number of pages that results from any search, including a search that yields no matches (a charge of $0.10, one page, for no matches).
Read the fee schedule for electronic public access services. Find out when PACER is free, tips to limit fees, or options to access records if you cannot afford PACER fees.
If your court does not keep electronic records, you will need to go to the courthouse in person to look at paper records.
Find Your Court
For jury duty, traffic tickets, or local court information, find your trial court:
What is an electronic court record?
When someone files a case in court, the court will keep an official record about the case. Information about you may be contained in a court record. For example, if you file a lawsuit claiming another person owes you money, your name and how much money you are asking for will become part of the court record.
A court may keep a record in paper or electronic format. A record kept in electronic format is known as an electronic record. An electronic record can only be viewed on an electronic device such as a computer, tablet, or cell phone.
Who can look at electronic court records?
The public is allowed to look at court records for most cases. However, there are some court records the public is not allowed to see. This happens when a law or court order makes a record confidential.
Examples of confidential cases include “juvenile dependency” (when a child is removed from their parents) and “juvenile delinquency” (when a child is accused of committing a crime). Court records for these cases are not available to the public.
In other cases, there are certain documents in the case file that are not available to the public. An example of these is a fee waiver application. The public may be able to see part of the court record but would not be able to see this document.
Even when the public is not allowed to look at a court record, there will still be certain people who are allowed. For example, if you are a party in a case, you can look at the court record even if the public cannot.
How can I look at an electronic court record?
There are two ways to look at electronic court records:
- On a computer at the courthouse.
- On a computer, tablet, or smart phone anywhere with an internet connection, such as your home, or the public library. This is known as “remote access.”
How you can access an electronic record depends on your relationship to the case. If you are a party, you have full remote access. If you are a member of the public, there may be limits on what you can see through remote access.
Remote Access by the Public
If it can, a court that keeps electronic records must allow the public to see them at the courthouse or through remote access. But there are several exceptions to remote access in sensitive cases such as divorce, child custody, civil harassment, and criminal. These exceptions strike a balance between the public’s right to know about the court’s business and individual privacy.
For example, if you saw a news story about a criminal trial and wanted to look at the court’s electronic record about the case to find out more, you would need to visit the courthouse and see the electronic record there. In some special situations where there is an unusually high level of public interest in a criminal case, a judge may allow remote access to a criminal electronic record. But this is not typical. Normally, you would need to visit the courthouse.
As another example, if you and your spouse were getting a divorce, information about you and your marriage could be in an electronic record. But the public could not look at the electronic record using remote access. Members of the public who wanted to see the electronic record would have to visit the courthouse.
You can see a complete list of case types where the public can only see electronic records at the courthouse. View rule 2.503 of the California Rules of Court.
Keep in mind, all or part of a court record may also be confidential by law or court order. In that case, no one from the public would be able to view the electronic record at the courthouse or through remote access.
Remote Access by Parties and Other People Related to the Case
Certain people, such as a party or a party’s attorney can always use remote access, if available, to look at the full electronic court record.
The sections below will give you more information about the people who can have full remote access to electronic records. The sections below only apply if the court is able to provide remote access. Not every court may be able to provide remote access. Even courts that are able to provide it may not yet be able to provide it to everyone listed below.
Locate a federal court case by using the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) or by visiting the Clerk’s Office of the courthouse where the case was filed.
Electronic Case Files
Federal case files are maintained electronically and are available through the internet-based Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service. PACER allows anyone with an account to search and locate appellate, district, and bankruptcy court case and docket information. Register for a PACER account.
- Use the PACER Case Locator if you are not sure which specific federal court the case was filed. You may also conduct nationwide searches to determine whether or not a party is involved in a federal case. This database updates at midnight each day.
- Access federal case documents in real-time if you know the specific court the case was filed in by logging into PACER.
Case files may also be accessed from the public access terminals in the clerk’s office of the court where the case was filed.
Paper Case Files
Most cases created before 1999 are maintained in paper format only. Access paper case files from the court, where the case was filed, or at one of the Federal Records Centers (FRCs). Contact the court where the case was filed for more information.
Phone Access to Court Records
All bankruptcy courts have a telephone information system, also known as the Voice Case Information System, that enables callers to obtain basic case information through a touchtone phone. This is free to use and available 24 hours a day.
Court opinions are available for free on PACER to anyone with an account. Additionally, access to court opinions from many appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts are available for no fee in a text searchable format through a partnership with the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO), consistent with the E-Government Act.
Older Historical Court Records
When court records and case files are eligible for permanent preservation, they are transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for storage and preservation. These records can be accessed directly from NARA.
- Electronic and paper court records retained at the court site can be viewed at the courthouse for free, however there is a fee of 10 cents per page to print from a public access terminal.
- There is a fee of 10 cents per page to access a file through PACER, with a maximum charge of $3.00 per document. Users are billed on a quarterly basis. Fees are waived for anyone accruing less than $30 in a quarter. Learn more about how PACER fees work.
- There is a $64 fee to retrieve a document for viewing that is from the Federal Records Center. See the Electronic Public Access Fee Schedule for details.
Fee Exemptions for Researchers
Individual researchers working on defined research projects intended for scholarly work can use the attached form (pdf) to request PACER fee exemptions from multiple courts. In accordance with the EPA fee schedule, the request should be limited in scope, and not be intended for redistribution on the internet or for commercial purposes.
Please note, if you are seeking a fee exemption from a single court and/or for non-research purposes, contact that court directly.
Define the data needs for research using the Federal Court Cases Integrated Database (IDB) provided free of charge by the Federal Judicial Center. The IDB has case data (not documents) for criminal, civil, appellate, and bankruptcy cases that can help researchers refine their requests.
Other Court Records
Information on accessing opinions and case-related documents for the Supreme Court of the United States is available on the court’s website.
Most court documents are available online, but judges may seal case records in some circumstances. Here is an overview.
Most documents in federal courts – appellate, district, and bankruptcy – are filed electronically, using a system called Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF). The media and public may view most filings found in this system via the Public Access to Court Electronic Records service, better known as PACER. Reporters who cover courts should consider establishing a PACER account and becoming familiar with the system. Users can open an account and receive technical support at pacer.gov.
Most documents in federal courts are filed electronically using CM/ECF. The media and public may view most filings found in this system.
Documents not available to the public are discussed in Sealed Documents and Closed Hearings. Even in public court documents, however, some information is not available. Federal rules require that anyone filing a federal court document must redact certain personal information in the interest of privacy, including Social Security or taxpayer identification numbers, dates of birth, names of minor children, financial account information, and in criminal cases, home addresses.
Once case information has been filed or updated in the CM/ECF system, that information is immediately available through PACER. Some courts provide free automatic case notification through Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds or through read-only CM/ECF access. In courts where RSS is available, PACER users can opt to receive automatic notification of case activity, summarized text, and links to the document and docket report.
For cases that draw substantial media and public interest, some courts have created special sections of their websites, called “Cases of Interest” or “Notable Cases,” where docket entries, court orders, and sometimes, trial exhibits may be posted. Some courts also use an email/text alert service during high-profile cases, to alert reporters to major filings and other information.
Most documents and docket sheets for cases that opened before 1999 are in paper format and therefore may not be available online. Paper files on closed cases eventually are transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) or they are destroyed in accordance with a records retention schedule approved by both the Judicial Conference of the United States and NARA.
Any search for older paper documents should begin by contacting the court where the case was filed. As a secondary source, such documents may be available from NARA.
User fees are charged to access documents in PACER, and the current fee structure is available at Electronic Public Access Fee Schedule. Fees are billed quarterly, and all fees are waived if the bill does not exceed a specified limit in a billing quarter.
Written opinions are published on court websites and are available for free on PACER. Many courts also publish free, text-searchable opinions on the Federal Digital System, or FDsys, operated by the U.S. Government Publishing Office.
Electronic records can be viewed in the clerk of court’s office for free, as can any paper records that have not been destroyed or transferred to the National Archives. But per-page fees are charged for printing or copying court documents in the clerk’s office.
Sealed Documents and Closed Hearings
In certain circumstances, judges have the authority to seal additional documents or to close hearings that ordinarily would be public. Reasons can include protecting victims and cooperating informants, and avoiding the release of information that might compromise an ongoing criminal investigation or a defendant’s due process rights.
- Courts sometimes seal documents that contain sensitive material, such as classified information affecting national security or information involving trade secrets.
- Criminal case documents and hearing transcripts are sometimes sealed to protect cooperating witnesses from retaliation.
- The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for protective orders during discovery to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.
- Bankruptcy court records are public, but under the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, the court may withhold certain commercial information, any “scandalous or defamatory matter,” or information that may create an undue risk of identity theft or other injury.
When a party to a case moves to seal a document or to close a hearing, a record of the motion can be found in PACER. Media organizations sometimes file motions opposing such requests.
Generally, when a party to a case moves to seal a document or to close a hearing, a record of the motion can be found in PACER. As noted in Media Access in Brief, media organizations sometimes file motions opposing such requests.
Civil litigants may ask judges to issue a protective order forbidding parties from disclosing any information or materials gathered during discovery. Deposition records often remain in the custody of the lawyers, and the media do not have a right of access to discovery materials not filed with the court.
When a civil case is settled, that fact is usually apparent from the public record. However, the terms of settlement and any discovery records may remain confidential.
The Federal Judicial Center provides comprehensive explanations of these issues in two downloadable booklets: Sealing Court Records and Proceedings: A Pocket Guide and Confidential Discovery: A Pocket Guide on Protective Orders.
There are a few ways to gain public access to electronic court records online. Using official courthouse records is one, using third-party search services is another. This guide will explain how to gain public access to both with using a first and last name to search for public records like warrants, arrests, criminal, contact info, and much more.
Advancements in technology has made public access to electronic court records easier.
Before the advancements in technology finding court records meant a trip to the courthouse, more specifically the clerk of courts to search for public court records. Now, most records are electronic and can be found by searching courthouses and search services directly online using a PC, tablet, or smartphone from anywhere you an internet connection can be had.
Where to find court records electronically
The below methods are a mix of paid and free. A lot of time we are asked the question of how to get court records online for free. There are methods to get court record free. a lot of courthouse data when searched is free to view and print. Search services and other methods usually charge a small fee to view and gain access to records online.
Most courthouses have the ability to for you to search directly online through a set of searches. Most commonly this would be by a first and last name.
Tip: You should know what county the record would have been created and search that courthouse online first.
If you know where the court record took place at, in terms of what county you chances of finding these records will greatly increase. Search for a county courthouse like this: “Broward County + Courthouse” just change the county to the county your searching for.
This should bring back the county courthouse for that county at the top of the search results in Google. Once inside the courthouse website start looking for public record searching, criminal records, court records search, etc. Most of these websites have the ability to gain public access to electronic court records.
Third-party search services
Using a search service like a public records aggregator can save you a lot of time when searching for court records in electronic form. That’s because the system searches for court records, criminal records, arrest records, warrants, and much more from a single name search directly online.
This is a very quick way to search for court records online because of its simplistic nature of use.
Sheriff websites also may give the general public access to search for public record data directly online. The most common forms of data would be that of warrants. Sheriff offices will post warrants for people they are looking for in and around the county. This is a really quick way to find records and it is completely free to do.
Either method should produce court records
Regardless of what method is used. Finding public access to electronic court records in today’s day of technology is not difficult, in fact, it is the most common way to find public records. Using either of the methods above should allow anyone that opportunity to find public records data quickly and efficiently.
About Adam Smith
Adam Smith has been writing about public record data for almost 5 years and is a major contributor to Criminaldatacheck.com. When Adam is not writing content you can find him on the water trying to land the next big fish.
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Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER)
Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is a web-based system that allows users with an internet connection and a PACER account to view or print case and document information via the Internet at a fee per page. Beginning in 1989, dockets may include images of documents filed. These documents may be viewed, downloaded and printed from your computer using your registered PACER login.
Alternatively, users may also view electronic court data at no charge using the courthouse public terminals. See Public Terminal Access for more information and availability.
Users may search for cases in PACER by accessing an invididual court’s PACER website or by using the PACER Case Locator. Information about the differences between the two systems follows:
To search for cases witin the state of Nevada
Users may access individual PACER or Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) for the state of Nevada by logging in to the Court PACER website (external link) .
To search for U.S. district, bankrupty and appellate courts cases
Users may search for national cases in the PACER index by logging in to the PACER Case Locator (external link) . It is a part of the PACER system which allows you to conduct nationwide searches for party information. The Case Locator replaces the U.S. Party / Case Index and provides the same results.
24 hours/day, 7 days/week
$0.10 cents per page*
billed quarterly provided your account accrues more than $30 usage in a given quarter
*The per page charge applies to the number of pages that results from any search, including a search that yields no matches (one page for no matches). The maximum charge for any imaged document is $3.00, with the exception of transcripts. Digital audio files are $2.40. See PACER FAQ (external link) for more information about fees.
PACER login/password, computer with internet access
Request Exemption from PACER fees
The court, may for good cause, exempt persons or classes of persons from the electronic public access fees.
To determine if you qualify for exemption, read our Guidelines.
If you meet the guidelines for exemption, submit the following forms:
Follow the instructions in the Guidelines document above for information about how to submit these forms to the court.
Public Terminal Access
9:00 am – 4:00 pm, Monday – Friday, closed Federal Holidays
Electronic court data may be viewed at no charge at public terminals which are located at the courthouses in Reno and Las Vegas. Printing charges apply at $0.10 per page copy fee for items printed from public access terminals. Payment may be in the form of a bank cashier’s check, a U.S. Postal money order, or a personal check * made payable to: U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
*Note: The Clerk’s office does not accept cash. Personal checks will not be accepted from debtors or debtors in possession unless their case is closed.
For Las Vegas Cases
United States Bankruptcy Court
District of Nevada
300 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89101
For Reno Cases
United States Bankruptcy Court
District of Nevada
300 Booth Street
Reno, NV 89509