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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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Types of Court Records

Different types of court records available for public review and research can be accessed in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. If you are trying to learn a little more about someone in your or your loved one’s life, need to perform a background check or are simply trying to find a long-lost family member, these records may come in handy. In addition, any records that may directly relate to a situation you currently find yourself in or pertain to your past may be of interest to you. Perhaps you want to research similar cases to yours, or you need to obtain copies of your own records for employment purposes, special permit applications or even college admission. Adoption records may also be of interest to you, but these are typically not available without a court order.

Where Do I Find the Records I Need?

Every level of local, state and federal government maintains its own records from past cases, spanning from municipal to federal courts. A very broad division may simply separate them into either criminal or civil records, but these may also be found at each level of government. For example, certain types of civil cases are considered the jurisdiction of one court, while others are heard by another. Bankruptcy cases are considered a federal matter, and heard in locally-placed federal district courts. Divorce and probate cases are heard by the local county government, and typically found in the local courthouse. Determining where the records you want to access are held is usually half the battle in any court records search. 

Criminal and Civil Records

Criminal court records may include arrest and incarceration information, misdemeanor and felony cases, DUI and DWI offenses, as well as sex offender records. Civil records include such things as transcripts and information from liens placed on an individual or business, divorce and family court proceedings, and probate hearings—basically any type of case that harms an individual but not society. Typically many of these records are held with the County Clerk’s office at the corresponding local courthouse. Federal records are held with the corresponding court, and can be accessed online or through the National Archives. Records found there include Certificates of Naturalization that may help you in genealogical research attempts.

Circuit and Superior Court Records

Depending upon your state’s court system and how it operates, circuit and superior court records may also be of interest to you. Superior court records include appeals from lower courts such as municipal or county courts, and circuit court records may be very similar. Some states simply separate the types of cases heard by each of these courts, or separate jury trials to be heard in one or the other. Each state is different, so performing a general state court records search may help point you in the correct direction.

Court Dockets and Files

No matter what type of records you’re researching, you’re likely to find dockets with information on the plaintiff and defendant, dates of the case’s hearings and related documents. Minutes recorded by the Court Clerk may also be available, which basically summarize actions of the court. Any judgments or orders can tell you whether an ancestor was granted citizenship or placed in the care of a guardian. Case files, which contain every document, date, party to the case and other information are perhaps the most complete resource available. You can usually find these files after learning the case file number from the court docket, minutes or index held in the County Clerk’s office.

When searching for any type of court records, you must first consider whether the information you need is a state or federal matter, and which court may hold the answers you need. Genealogical searches, background checks and even looking for your own parents or providing the outcomes from a past case you were involved in are all achieved by simply approaching the correct court.



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