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Under The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Title 5 of the United States Code, section 552, any person has the right to request access to public records: criminal records, arrests & warrants, inmate records, vital records & more.

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How the Public Can Access Court Records

Although there may be a variety of reasons you want to access court records, you first need to know where to go and what information is needed to find the correct record for you. Finding and researching public records can lead you to a long-lost relative or even confirm the outcome of a past case you were party to. Perhaps you need a copy of your bankruptcy discharge papers, or need copies of an arrest record for a professional school application. Either way, you have several options for pursuing the correct information you need.

Gaining Access to Public Court Records

Not every type of court record is available to the public. For example, adoption records are often sealed by the presiding judge to protect the identities of the parties involved. A court order is usually needed to access the information contained in these, and it is often not sufficient to simply claim you need to conduct genealogical research to obtain one. If the records concern you directly, you are more likely to be able to access them. 

Arrest records, lien records, probate, bankruptcy and divorce records are usually available to the public. These are ideal when you want to check an individual’s background or need to confirm your own past. Many professional schools will require applicants to include details about any arrest and criminal case they have been party to. This is simply considered as part of an applicant’s character and viability as a representative of the school after graduation. You may also need to get copies of your divorce records if you plan on remarrying or have a dispute with your ex about property division or child visitation agreements.

Although many court records are considered public domain, private or identifying information of the parties involved is usually protected from outside researchers. This is simply a precaution against identity theft and protection for anyone named in a case. 

Searching for Public Records

Conducting a court records search for the records you need may lead you to the local courthouse, the corresponding court’s Website, or even a public search engine or National Archive. It’s generally suggested that you start with a  free court records search on a public search engine, as this can provide some information at no charge. You’ll be able to see the court which holds the records you need, and perhaps the service will even offer to retrieve them for a small fee. Many who are searching for these records will go straight to the source, through either the courthouse or county court’s Website, or even the state’s Vital Records office. Each state has different practices and rules regarding how to and who can access them.

Obtaining Copies of Records

If you need copies of arrest records or criminal records, you will likely need to visit the local courthouse in person. The corresponding municipal or county court that handled the case should maintain these records for public access. It’s possible you’ll be charged a fee for any copies you need, with charges increasing for certified or notarized copies.

Most courthouses will provide indexes of past cases filed by year and date, and separated by type and the court which presided over them. Dockets, or court calendars, are also filed in the courthouse which provide the case file number, parties involved in the chase, charges pressed against the defendant(s), and the outcome of the case including any judgments or orders.

Accessing Federal Records

If you need federal records, you may be able to access them from the comfort of your own home through a service called PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records. However, you will have to register with the service and pay a nominal fee for the records you access. A case index provides basic information to members, as well as links to other sites. Through PACER’s service, you can access federal appellate, district and bankruptcy court records and documentation from across the county. This is especially convenient if you need records from a different district than which you live in.

The FBI also maintains a database of free criminal records, but these do not include misdemeanors—only felonies. Free public access to these records include arrest, criminal court, corrections and state criminal records. When someone is arrested, the law enforcement agency responsible creates an arrest report that is provided to the criminal courts and becomes part of a permanent record. State criminal records also include any corrections information if the offender was convicted and sentenced, and these are accessible by the public.

Regardless if you need to access court records for a personal matter or to perform a background check on someone else, you may have the option to access them at no charge from the convenience of your own home. Complete or certified copies may require a small fee, but many public search engines online will provide enough detail to confirm or deny the existence of a record. Using this information, you can approach the appropriate court and request access to the documents held in the county or district courthouse according to their rules.


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