Whether you are looking into a court case for school research or curiosity, you can find thousands of case files online. It’s incredible the amount of court-related information available to the general public. Follow these steps to find cases you are interested in.
Identify Who is Named in the Court Files
The first thing you must do is identify the parties in the court case. Consider who is named in the court files. Are you looking for a court case that involves a company, a person, or another type of entity? You may have to perform some research online if you are looking for a company. Some companies do business under another name (DBA), and you can usually Google it to find out what it’s registered under and the corporate address.
If you are searching for a person, you will need to know their full legal name. You can usually find that in public records databases. It is also helpful to know the names of the legal representatives or judge who handled the case. Knowing the county where the case took place is also important.
Find Out What Court Heard the Case
There are dozens of state and federal courts and even local-level courts across the country. You do need to identify which court heard the case.
You can start with the Supreme Court and then check lower courts below that, such as appellate courts or state courts. Most courts handle specific types of cases, so if you know that it was a high-profile murder case that will help direct you to the correct court. Check out the state’s court website. Most of them have handy search features where you can find the information you want. They may even include docket or case numbers so you can dig deeper with that information.
When Did the Court Case Take Place?
You must also have a date range to search. If the case took place beyond a particular timeframe, those files might be stored offline in a storage facility. In some states, all records are online, but older ones may be located on an archive website or database. Knowing approximately when the case took place will help narrow down your options.
Open cases are almost always available online, at least some information. Once they are closed, you can see sentencing, judgments, and any follow-up details.
Keep in mind; not all historical cases will be available. Some court files are sealed. Some jurisdictions have rules about destroying files after they reach a certain age, or they may store them on microfilm, making it difficult to access unless you can visit in person.
You may have to visit the courthouse in person anyway if the case is older and you want copies of files. Courts sometimes charge a small fee for copies of case files, and you may have to wait for them.
How to Obtain Court Records Online?
Before digging right in, you can do a broad search online for general information and then go deeper. Try these tips:
- Visit The National Center for State Courts to start. They have an online directory of courts and court records that will help you get started.
- If you can locate the docket for the case, this will give you a listing of all the accompanying files and information related to the case.
- Once you have the docket number, you can get copies of the files and research the case further. It may lead you to police reports, arrests, and other related criminal records.
- Check out Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) for federal court records. Keep in mind they have records going back only 15 years.
- Visit the court clerk for information and copies of files.
- Check out media publications that talked about the case for hints of where to look next.
- Use a tool like InfoTracer to perform court records search and get docket numbers to help in your search.
Other Tips to Find Court Records for Free
There are various ways to find and gather information about court cases. Your best bet is first to try searching online. Many courts allow online filing, so most records are now kept in online databases.
However, if that doesn’t yield the results you want, try these other tips:
- Call courthouses and speak to the clerk of the court. They are the ones responsible for court records, copies, and information about the case. They can also tell you where to find the files and if you have to visit in person.
- Check state archives. Most states have a court records archive website where you can search for older cases. Each region will have rules about the age of records stored there. Some may archive records as soon as the case is closed; others may require they age longer.
- Check out the National Archives to see if the information you want is available there.
When you find what you want, you may have to fill out forms and pay a fee. In most cases, though you should be able to get what you need pretty easy online and for free.