• Performing a criminal background check
• Filing a civil case
• Requesting a record expungement
• Obtaining vital records
• A change in marital status (getting married or divorced)
• Changing your name
• Reviewing land ownership information
Criminal background checks are used for a variety of reasons, including future employment, voter registration, school admittance, property sales and rentals, security clearance, and purchasing firearms. Criminal background checks are sometimes required for obtaining a special driver’s license like a CDL. They show a person’s criminal past if one exists, including past arrests, warrants, pending charges, acquitted charges, and dismissed charges.
Civil cases are federal cases that begin when an entity (such as a corporation or government agency) accuses another person or entity of failing to carry out a legal duty. Civil cases involve the plaintiff suing the defendant for damages such as assault and defamation.
Record expungement refers to the banishment (or “sealing”) of a legally recorded criminal conviction. This process can also be called “setting aside a criminal conviction.” Record expungement is left to the decision of state and local courts. Therefore, each municipality and state has different rules and procedures for exterminating a convicted criminal’s legal record. Once a record is officially expunged, the accused party does not need to provide that criminal history when seeking a new job or renting an apartment. An expunged record may not be available to the public after it is erased, but it can still be accessed by government agencies, law enforcement agencies, and criminal courts.
Vital records, or family records, exist in several capacities. They include birth records, death records, marriage records, divorce records, and wills. Vital records exist for all individuals. They are carried out by local authorities, with the exception of individuals born overseas, military personnel, and residents of the District of Columbia. Marriage records come in several formats, including applications, licenses, certificates, intent to marry, bonds, registers, and affidavits. Since family law is a state-level law, the amount of information available varies. These records can be changed over time, such as when people legally change their maiden or legal name, or when they become married, legally separated, or divorced.
Land records and home ownership documents are also commonly requested legal documents. Historical land records show the transfer of public land to private owners. They are available in documents called tract books, which are divided into two geographic areas: Eastern States and Western States. Land records also show transactions between private land owners, such as house sales. They are important documents for prospective homebuyers who want to know critical information about their potential new property, such as deeds, easements, and any restrictions. Researchers also use land records to search for other related information, such as a person’s ancestors, family history, land use titles, and land use issues. Records can also verify an individual’s birthplace, citizenship, military service, economic status, and level of education. This information may be available for their family members too.
The majority court documents are public records unless the records involve juveniles or have been expunged by the court. In the US, you can find a record from a court at the federal, state, and local level. Most documents are available online, but in some cases, particularly in smaller local courts, you may have to do a search in person. Depending on what area of law you are dealing with, you can find court records in the following categories:
• Criminal court records
• Arrest records
• Civil case records
• Bankruptcy records
• Land deeds
• Family and marital court records
Criminal court records, or police records, show a person’s criminal past. They are used by employers, lenders, adoption agencies, and others to determine an individual’s moral capacity and trustworthiness. Criminal law is a state-level law, and therefore records contain varying amounts of information depending on locality. Criminal records may include traffic offenses like speeding and drunk driving. They can include convictions of shoplifting, assault, and battery and may show prior arrests, charges dismissed, pending charges, and acquittals.
Arrest records are documents that show a person’s criminal history. These records are similar to criminal records, and they are created when an individual is convicted of criminal activity in a court of law. Arrest records are filed in archives at law enforcement agencies and judicial administrative institutions. The type of crime committed dictates the governing statute of limitations, which is a legal tool that determines the lifetime of an arrest record. Once the statute of limitations is reached, the arrest record is erased and must be destroyed.
Civil case records are available at the local, state, and federal court level. Civil records show any non-criminal lawsuits filed by or against an individual or entity. Civil records go back seven years and are frequently used in background checks, doing business with contractors, and partnering with a new business. These records show a person’s name, the type of case filed, when it was filed, a closing or pending date, case title, case number, and court location.
Bankruptcy records are handled at the federal level. A bankruptcy case normally begins when a debtor files a petition with a bankruptcy court. If you are looking for a bankruptcy record, you should start your search in the federal district where the person in question filed for bankruptcy.
Land deeds, or real estate deeds, are legal instruments that pass, affirm, or confirm property, property rights, and interest. They are signed, attested, and delivered. In some jurisdictions, land deeds are sealed, but that practice is less common now. The most common type of land deeds transfer assets (such as ownership) from one party to another.
Family and marital records, or vital records, show important milestones in a person’s life, such as birth, death, marriage, divorce, and legal name change. These records are usually administered by local authorities. Exceptions exist, however, for people born overseas, those in the military, and residents of the District of Columbia. Census records are similar, but they capture data for entire segments of the population instead of a specific individual.
In law, complaints set out facts and reasons (also called cause of action) why a party is filing a claim against another party or parties. Sometimes, specific types of criminal cases are enacted when a complaint is filed. In the United States, complaints are generally filed for misdemeanor criminal charges presented to a prosecutor without a grand jury process.
A summons is a legal document issued by a court or government agency. These documents are served on individuals in a legal proceeding. They may indicate that legal action is in progress against the served individual, or that a person must appear as a witness. Jurisdictions have the authority to set requirements for language that appears in a summons.
When searching for records, keep in mind that official documents come in several formats. A court docket is a written record of a court proceeding. Court transcripts are a bit more involved. They contain a dialogue of all decisions that a judge makes and oral arguments made by the litigants’ lawyers. Whatever type of information you are looking for, you are likely to get accurate information quickly. Appellate case information is posted daily to provide the public and lawyers with updated case docket information. If you are performing a judiciary case search, you can sign up to receive email notifications with recently released decisions. Now that you know what type of record you might need, it is time to begin the records search.
1. Learn About the United States Court System
Both state and federal court systems follow a hierarchy. Searching for records in person and online can be a lengthy (and costly) process. Therefore, it is a good idea to learn about the US court structure before requesting documents. In the federal system, the highest level court is the United States Supreme Court. Appellate courts and trial courts are second and third, respectively. Appellate and trial courts are divided into jurisdictions based on geographic location. Appellate-level jurisdictions are called circuits, and trial courts are called districts. Some jurisdictions handle special matters like bankruptcy and international trade. When looking for records, be aware that some states have different names for their courts. Your state, for instance, might call its top court a “superior court” rather than a supreme court, and state appellate courts are sometimes referred to as “courts of appeal.” When you start looking for court case information, be aware that cases can be heard before both a state supreme court and the United States Supreme Court, and you will be able to find information at both the state and federal levels.
2. Analyze Court Document Information
After determining whether you need records from a state or federal court, start your court case lookup with as much court case information as possible. Quite often, you can find out the type of court (for instance, criminal, bankruptcy, or civil), its location (a federal, state, county, or municipality) and the court’s name.
3. Know What Area of Law Your Case Involves
Figuring out what type of law you are dealing with before you begin a court records lookup can save you quite a bit of time. Some legal subjects, like contract law and family law, are state-level issues. Others, like bankruptcy and constitutional law, are federal concerns. It is worth noting that there may be exceptions to these rules. Federal courts sometimes hear state law issues and vice versa.
4. Searching for Federal Court Records
At the federal level, most records are available electronically. The main federal case search tool is called Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). It was established in 1999 by the Federal Judiciary. Since then, it has made searching for electronic records much easier. Most cases are filed electronically and therefore available through PACER. On the site, users can find case and court docket information from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts. As a new user in the PACER system, you will have to create an account. You will also be asked to provide credit card information, as there is a fee associated with retrieving court documents. The rate for obtaining documents is $0.10 per page or a maximum of $3 per record. It is best to come prepared for a document request on PACER, as it can cost $30 to perform a more advanced search.
5. Finding State Court Records
As with the federal court system, many state courts make legal documents available to the public. You can search the National Center for State Courts website to find resources for getting state court records where you live. While you might find all the information you need right away from a federal source, states vary in the type and quantity of information that they post in public records. You may need to supplement your basic search with an in-person or written request for additional information.
6. Getting County Court Records
At the county level, it may be a bit more time-consuming to find legal records. Some municipalities let residents perform all or part of their court records lookup electronically. In some instances, you might be able to see basic information online like the names of the parties involved and the case’s final judgment. Other times, however, you must make a written or in-person request for more detailed information. Before you go looking for court-level records, it is a good idea to check out your local Clerk of Courts website to find out what types of records are available in your area.
7. On-Site and In-Person Requests
Due to the ease and convenience of electronic records requests, the federal court system no longer entertains in-person requests. As an alternative, many public libraries offer free internet and staff who can help you navigate the PACER system. At the state and local levels, you may be able to stop by your local Clerk of Courts office to find records. You can review the record on site, but you won’t be able to take the record home. For a fee, you can generally request a copy of the record.