Locating court records can be a complicated process for anyone who is not familiar with the courts being searched. Before beginning any attempt to research court records, one should have a clear idea of what is being sought:
- What type of court cases need to be found? Court records can be found in many different courts depending on the type of case. Criminal and traffic records might be found in several different courts depending on the severity of the charge, the age of the defendant, the type of charge, and other factors. Likewise, civil cases are usually handled by different courts within the same jurisdiction based on the value at stake in the dispute. Most of the online searching provided by courts shows which courts are included in the search but have very little information about what types of cases are covered.
- What geographic area needs to be searched? Criminal court and traffic cases are usually filed in the jurisdiction where the violation or offense occurred. If the person for whom you are seeking records lives or works near a county or state boundary or is otherwise likely to have frequented another jurisdiction, you’ll need to expand your inquiry. Civil and small claims cases are generally filed in the jurisdiction of one or more of the involved parties. Divorces are usually handled by courts in the jurisdiction of residence, but be careful; some courts have made a cottage industry out of handling non-contested divorces. Nevada and Lincoln County in Washington are good examples.
- What time period needs to be covered? Be sure that the data searched covers the time period you need. Many of the online court records searches provided by courts do a good job of indicating how recently the database was updated. Very few showed how far back cases could be found or what the retention period was for the cases being searched, you may need to ask.
Helping you find free court records and other means of searching courts cases is the objective of the Court Records Free Reference and Directory. In addition to links to thousands of online court record searches, the site provides state by state descriptions of the types of courts found in each state along with a table showing where cases of different types might be found. Pages are provided for online research in several different categories. Directories of court locations and websites are provided for each county.