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Different Type of Court, Same Type of Name?

August 31st, 2015 · No Comments

We talked about about the different types of courts you might find in different states here, including the difficulty of figuring out which local court handles your type of case (and the fact that CourtReference helps you figure that out). If you know the name of each court in your area, you can go to CourtReference and see what types of cases that court handles.

But just knowing the name of a court may not always be enough, depending on where you live. For example, you would think that a “Municipal Court” would have jurisdiction over a particular municipality (i.e., a particular city or town). But if you were in Ohio, you’d be wrong! We explored Ohio’s Municipal Courts here, pointing out that some Ohio Municipal Courts have jurisdiction over an entire county, some over most but not all of a county, and some over a single city or town.

Even if you know all about a court’s territorial jurisdiction, two courts in the same county with the same type of name may not always have the same subject matter jurisdiction. For example, Arkansas has two types of District Courts: State District Courts and Local District Courts – even though they are all called simply District Courts. Arkansas’ Local District Courts have jurisdiction over civil claims up to $5,000, while State District Courts have jurisdiction up to $25,000. Whether your lawsuit for $10,000 can be filed in District Court or Circuit Court depends on which type of District Court exists in your location. And if all parties agree, a case may be transferred from Circuit Court to a State District Court – but not to a Local District Court. Helpful hint: Arkansas Local District Courts took the place of former City Courts, and some local residents still refer to their local court as a City Court – so if you hear that, you know they’re talking about a Local District Court.

We previously discussed types of courts that are allowed to have non-lawyer judges. In some states, some Municipal Courts can have non-lawyer judges, while other Municipal Courts must have judges who possess a law degree; we covered those in detail here. We pointed out in that post that whether a Municipal Court judge has a law degree or not, there is usually no difference in the court’s jurisdiction or case procedures.

In some states, some Magistrate Courts can have non-lawyer judges, while other Magistrate Courts must have magistrates who possess a law degree; we covered those – along with Justice of the Peace Courts – in detail here. In contrast to Municipal Courts, Magistrate Courts with non-lawyer judges often have narrower subject-matter jurisdiction than Magistrate Courts in which the magistrate has a law degree.

In that same blog post, we noted that Justice of the Peace Courts are normally presided over by non-lawyer judges. Justice of the Peace Courts may sometimes be called Justice Courts, and they usually have limited territorial jurisdiction, such as a single precinct or district within a county. Utah has a type of court named Justice Courts, which have their own local twist: they can be County Justice Courts with countywide jurisdiction, or Municipal (or City) Justice Courts with local jurisdiction.

Most Utah County Justice Courts include the word “County” in their name, and most Municipal Justice Court do not include the word “Municipal” or “City” in their name. But of course there are exceptions: just look at the names of the Justice Courts in Cache County. Which one is the County Justice Court? None of them! They are all Municipal Justice Courts. Carbon County is a little easier; its County Justice Court says it’s a County Justice Court, even though two of the Municipal Justice Courts don’t let on that they’re local courts. To add a further twist, some County Justice Courts don’t really have jurisdiction over the entire county; they only have jurisdiction over a precinct in the county. See Beaver County for an example.

Confusing? Yes, it is. Always check CourtReference for an explanation of your state’s court system. If that doesn’t do the trick, just call the court – we have court contact information too.

→ No CommentsTags: Arkansas · Court Systems · · Ohio · Utah

How Not to Find Case Records

July 27th, 2015 · No Comments

Last month’s post was a refresher course about how to find case records. It did mention simply Googling “court records” (“case records” will produce similar results) before suggesting better options. I’d like to explain a bit more about why Google is not the most efficient way to find case records.

Each court system maintains its own case records, perhaps on a statewide or countywide database, or a court-specific database, or (yes, even in this day and age) in paper files in steel filing cabinets, or on microfilm (to be fair, that last method is mostly used for older cases that the court hasn’t gotten around to digitizing). If the records are in a database, they are freely available to the court system personnel; they may or may not be available online to the general public. If they are available to the general public, they may or may not be free. But one thing all these case records have in common is that they are maintained by people – court system employees – most often, employees of the clerk’s office of each court.

Whether the people who maintain these records are in the court clerk’s office or the state court administrator’s office, they know where the records are, what they contain, and how to access them. If the records are available online to the general public, these people try to make them easy to find by putting a link to the records on the individual court’s website, and/or the state court system’s website.

For example, the New Mexico Judicial Branch maintains a statewide database of case records. There is a link to it on the New Mexico Judicial Branch home page. People use this website for many things in addition to searching for case records, so you have to hunt for the “On-Line Case Lookup” link in the left column of the home page, and it’s toward the bottom of the list of links. But it’s there, and Google finds it. If you Google “new mexico court records” it’s at the very top of the list of over 4,000 search results. So far so good.

For another example, California does not have a statewide case record search. California case records are maintained at the county level. If you Google “california court records” you get over 30,000 results. The first result is the  California Judicial Branch home page, where you will eventually find the “Access to Judicial Administrative Records” link in the center of the page, about a third of the way down the page. But as the link title implies, it’s not a link to the records, it’s a link to a discussion about access to the records. After you’ve read most of the page, you’ll come to the explanation that the records are maintained by each county Superior Court, and a link to local court websites. You can use that link to find links to each county’s Superior Court website, where you can again start to hunt for links to the records. What Google can’t tell you is that you have to hunt for those records on a county-by-county basis. Although Google puts the California Judicial Branch at the top of its search results, the rest of the links on the first page of results are all to commercial services that charge a fee to show you the records (the one exception is to a Yahoo Answers question about searching California case records, but the answers are mostly confusing or just plain wrong).

Finally, let’s take a look the Louisiana Judicial Branch home page, which has no links to case record information. That’s because Louisiana has no statewide public case records database, and most of its local online case record searches are contracted out to commercial for-profit companies. Many individual Louisiana parish District Courts and some City Courts have online record searches, but because most of them are run by private companies, they require registration and payment of search fees and/or subscriptions. If you Google “louisiana court records” the first result is the Judicial Branch home page with no information about records, and rest of the results on the first page are  all to commercial services that will sell you case records.

Google’s search algorithms do an amazing job of finding a lot of information very quickly, but it’s not always the exact information you’re looking for. Google looks for patterns of keywords in online documents, so it’s going to find a lot of websites that talk about case records or court records – not necessarily the websites that have those records. That’s why it finds so many websites that want to sell you those records. It will also find websites that might contain court records based on the type of website. That’s why it does find the state court system’s home page, and usually puts it at the top of the search results. Whether or not that state court system home page can lead you to case records is a different – and possibly labyrinthine - story.

If you’ve been reading this blog, and using CourtReference to find case records, then you already know that many courts have websites with links to their online record searches, but that many of them are maintained at the county or local level. It only stands to reason that the most efficient way to find those local court records is to find the local court website, and then find the record search link on that website. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could go to a website with court information organized by state and then by county? Wouldn’t it be even nicer if that website also included direct links to each court system’s and court’s online record search, so that you wouldn’t have to hunt for it on the court website?  CourtReference is that nice website.

Let’s revisit our examples via CourtReference instead of Google. Suppose you want to search New Mexico court records but you don’t know that New Mexico has a statewide search. You could go to a specific county page (say, Eddy County) on CourtReference, click the Eddy County 5th Judicial District Court website link, and see the “Case Lookup” link in the left column of that court website. Or you could just click CourtReference’s “Online Resources” link for that court, and get the direct link to the case record search at the very top of the page of results. If you already knew that New Mexico has a statewide search, you could simply go to CourtReference’s main New Mexico page and select “Search Court Case Records” from the “Choose a Court Resource Category” drop-down menu. That will get you CourtReference’s New Mexico Court Case Records page, with links to the main statewide record search, a separate statewide lower-court criminal record search, and all available local county searches.

How about California? This time it’s clearly faster than Google. Go to CourtReference’s main California page. Then select a county (say, Alameda County) and click the “Online Resources” link for any Alameda Superior Court location, or just select “Search Court Case Records” from the drop-down to get  all California county searches in alphabetical order by county. Google can’t do that.

Finally, Louisiana. Select any parish, click the court’s “Online Resources” link, and – if that parish has an online search – click the link to the search. It will most likely be a paid search in Louisiana, but CourtReference tells you when a search requires payment before you click on it.

CourtReference can get you to the exact case record search that you’re looking for with a minimum of clicks because we don’t use an algorithm. We use real humans – with legal backgrounds – to locate the record searches and present the links to you. We’re not too far removed from the people who maintain the records in the first place. Happy searching!

→ No CommentsTags: California · Court Systems · · Finding Court Records · Louisiana · New Mexico

How to Find Case Records: A Refresher

June 28th, 2015 · No Comments

Here at CourtReference, we get a lot of questions about court records. People want to know how to go about looking up a divorce record, doing a criminal background check, or looking up a will from the 1800′s.

Of course anyone can just Google “court records” to start the ball rolling. But if Google knows your location (and they do, they do!), the top search results will be for your area – and most of the rest will be for commercial websites that charge a fee to search. That’s why most of our questions are about how to find court records without paying a fee.

The answer depends on where the records are located. Many court systems have put their records online, and allow you to search them for free. Others charge a fee to search their online records, and some of those require registration and a subscription. Still others have no online records; the paper records can be searched in person at the courthouse for free, although you would have to pay copying charges if you want to take a copy home.

Some states’ online court record searches include all of the courts in a particular state; others include some but not all courts in the state (e.g. all Circuit and District court cases, but no Municipal Court cases); still others include records from only one level of the court system. In other states, records are only maintained at the county level; some counties may have all of their records online, while other counties have only some – or none at all.

To borrow a saying from another profession, it’s all about “location, location, location.” First you need to know where the records are kept, and then you need to find out if those records are available online for free, for a fee, or not at all. Note that they are always free at the courthouse, except for the cost of copies – and with some exceptions for types of court records that are restricted for their subjects’ safety, such as many juvenile records and nearly all records of protective orders.

CourtReference has a wealth of information about courts, such as dockets and calendars, opinions, self-help resources, sources of legal help, forms, and online fine payment sites. But CourtReference’s original purpose was to help people find court records. That’s why we include contact information for all trial courts in the U.S.,  so people can call or visit the courthouse to inquire about and access court records.

It’s also why we list online record searches at the top of our “Online Resources” page for each court. For example, check out our page for Berkshire County, MA to see contact information for Berkshire Superior Court, and then click the “Online Resources” link under that court to find related resources, with “Searching Case Records” links at the top of the list.

It’s also why “Search Court Case Records” is the first choice in our “Find court resources by category” menu for each state. For example, check out our California Courts Guide and then go to the “Find court resources by county” drop-down menu and select “Search Court Case Records” for links to all case record searches in CA.

Finally, the importance of location is why we have our information organized by state and then by county. Yes, finding free court records is complicated, but we help by checking every state trial court to see if it has a record search, and then linking it for you. We also help by providing tips in this very blog. Check out Court Records Basics (the best overview!), About Criminal Records and Where to Find Them, Using Court Records for Background Investigations, Jurisdiction and Court Records, and our most recent roundup of Misconceptions About Court Records Availability.

We even highlight specific state issues, such as when Virginia provides online access to its court records, or when New Hampshire decides not to (and six years later, NH still doesn’t have online court records!). CourtReference even finds paid record search services that are provided by the courts. That may not be what people are looking for, but when it’s the only option, we link to it – and we tell you that it’s a paid search. For example, nearly all record searches provided by Louisiana courts require payment; see how we note that here. Some court systems charge a fee to search their own records, because it costs them money to maintain the online system. Yes, court records are supposed to be free public records, and the paper copies at the courthouse are – but there is no requirement that public records be free online.

It’s obvious that looking up court records takes some work. That’s why paid commercial services exist. Not only do they have to maintain their online system, they have to collect the court records in the first place. If you don’t have time to search yourself, you can use a commercial service. Some of them even advertise on CourtReference. Look at any CourtReference state page – e.g. Montana – and you’ll see links labeled “Advertising” or “AdChoices” near the top of the page, at the bottom, and along the left side. Those links will take you to a commercial site that offers court record searches for a fee. If you don’t have time to do the search yourself, give them a click.

But please bear in mind that when you click one of our advertiser’s lnks, you are then doing business with that company. CourtReference can’t help you with any issues you may have with their services. We get many comments from people who click our “Contact Us” link  (it’s at the top of every CourtReference page) and ask about a service they have paid for, or are thinking about paying for. If that service is provided by a court or government agency, you need to contact the court or agency. If the service is provided by one of our advertisers, you need to contact the advertisers. We make that easy: links to them are provided, under the heading “Third-Party Services” on the right side of our “Contact Us” page.

→ No CommentsTags: California · Court Systems · · Finding Court Records · Louisiana · Massachusetts · Montana · New Hampshire · Virginia