While keeping up with developments in court systems, court records, and related online resources, we at CourtReference frequently encounter discussions about the difficulty – or ease – of finding court records online. We’ve discussed the many types of court records available online, right here on this blog; see our posts about More Court Records (Jan 2012), What to Know Before Searching (Dec 2010), Jurisdiction and Court Records (Oct 2008), Court Records Basics (Aug 2008), and Where to Find Criminal Records (Feb 2008).
Yet many people still have trouble finding court records. “There’s no such thing as free court records online” is a recurring opinion. We assume that opinion is held by those who had a bad experience with paid record-search sites, or who simply don’t know where to look. Either way, that’s too bad, because it’s not true. There are plenty of free court records online, if you know where to look.
“Where can I find a free national database of court records?” is a recurring question. There is a public-access database of Federal court records, called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), but it only covers Federal Circuit, District, and Bankruptcy courts. There is no national database of state court records, because each state has its own court system.
Commercial services that charge a fee to search court records may cover all states, but they are actually aggregating search results from all the individual states’ online systems. That may be the cause of some pessimism about the availability of free state court records; the only way to do a single nationwide search is to pay a service to search many different state sources. But if the searcher understands that each state has a separate court system, then he or she might realize that court records can be searched on a state-by-state basis. Then the searcher will find that many state and local court systems have searchable records online, for free.
That doesn’t mean that all records are available, or that they’re all free. Some court systems charge a fee to search their records, and some don’t have records online at all. It’s true that most court records – except for sensitive records such as juvenile and sexual assault cases – are public records. But if the court system does not have an online search capability, the only way to find those records is to travel to the courthouse and search the hardcopy records. After spending the time and gas money to make the trip, the searcher can only look at the records for free; taking those records home requires paying a copying fee for each page. That’s why some court systems are able to charge a fee for the convenience of online searching: it’s still cheaper than traveling and copying paper documents.
Now that we know that many court systems do have searchable court records online, where do we look? Does each state have a statewide database of court records? Sadly, no. Happily, some do. The quickest way to find out what searches are available in any give state is to use CourtReference. Select the state you’re interested in searching, then select “Search Court Case Records” in the Choose a Court Resource Category.
- If you started with Connecticut, you are in luck; you’d immediately see that Connecticut has a single free statewide search of all types of Superior Court case records, with advanced search options.
- If you started with New Jersey, you’d see that New Jersey has a free statewide record search, but that it’s limited to Superior Court civil cases.
- If you started with Alabama, you’d see that Alabama has a statewide search of its Circuit and District Court records, and that there is a fee to use the service. You would also see that a few local courts have their own Probate Court record searches.
- If you started with Indiana, you’d see that Indiana is a little more complicated. It has a free basic search of that covers Circuit and Superior Court cases in most counties, and for some city and town courts; advanced search options are also available, but for a fee. It also has separate statewide searches for criminal records and protective orders, and another free search with advanced search options that covers Circuit and Superior Courts in most counties.
- If you started with Texas, you’d see that Texas is more than a little complicated. It has no statewide search; all searches must be done at the county or municipal level, many county and municipal courts do not have records online, some counties have separate searches for different levels of courts – and did I mention that Texas has 254 counties? When searching for court records in Texas, it really helps to know exactly which court has those records.
- At the opposite end of the spectrum, if you started with Massachusetts, you’d see that no Massachusetts courts have online record searches. At least Massachusetts provides information about which types of records are available at the clerk’s office. And CourtReference Guide to Massachusetts Courts tells you how to find the clerk’s office.
At this time, Massachusetts, West Virginia, and Wyoming are the only states with no statewide, countywide, or local court record searches. Every other state has record searches, although some states only have a few at the local level and no statewide or even countywide search. As more court systems add online record searches, you’ll be able to find them at CourtReference.