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When Court Websites Come Up Short

October 26th, 2014 · No Comments

Businesses, organizations, units of government, even many individuals have websites. It’s no surprise that many courts also have websites. As with any other entity’s website, some court websites are better than others: easier to see what’s there, easier to navigate, with more content.

On some court websites, it’s obvious at first glance how to contact the court by mail and phone, how to search case records and court calendars, how to locate and download the forms you need, and how to pay fines online. An explanation of the court’s process; the types of cases the court handles; and links to court rules, special programs, the law library, and self-help resources are easy to find. Some court websites even include links to related agencies and organizations, such as probation departments, prosecutor’s offices, public defender offices, child support departments, legal aid agencies, and bar associations.

On the other hand, some court websites may include only a phone number or address – which might be incorrect if the website has not been maintained. The great majority of court websites fall somewhere in between content-rich and bare-bones, and in between easy and inscrutable. CourtReference endeavors to bring you all the available content for each court, no matter how difficult it may be to find on the court website – and even when there is no court website at all. We also include related resources from other state and local entities that relate to the court but are not normally found on a court website.

Take, for example a court with no website at all:  Fairfax Municipal Court in Allendale County, South Carolina. Although this court has no website, CourtReference uses multiple online sources to verify the court’s contact information, and it appears on our Allendale County page along with all the other courts in that county. Unless you called the court (using the phone number supplied by CourtReference), you wouldn’t know that you can search Fairfax Municipal Court case records online, and pay your fines and traffic tickets online. If you click the blue ”Online Resources” link under Fairfax Municipal Court, you’ll see our CourtReference page full of resources applicable to Fairfax Municipal Court – note that it includes not only the case record and payment resources unique to Fairfax Municipal Court, but it also includes many statewide resources that can help you understand your legal issues, or to find a lawyer to assist.

Let’s take a look at a court with a bare-bones website. Some Georgia municipal courts have their own content-rich websites, but many use a page from the Georgia state municipal court directory, which only contains contact information. For example, check out Trion Municipal Court in Chattooga County. Since most municipal court cases are traffic-related, you might want to know how to pay your fine. It’s not on the website, but it’s on CourtReference’s Online Resource page for Trion Municipal Court. Scroll down to the bottom of that page, to our Online fine payments category, and you’ll see that you can pay your regular traffic fine online – and if you were speeding a few too many times, you can pay your state-mandated “Super-Speeder” additional fine online too. Also note the many other resources, including “Municipal Court Information” in our Self help, legal research… category, which applies to all GA municipal courts.

Some court websites have links that are not easily noticed, such as these two examples from Brazoria County, Texas. The Clute Municipal Court website doesn’t make it easy to find its online citation payment link (it’s one of the options in the “Online Bill Pay” link at the top of the page). CourtReference has it in our Online fine payments category.

Still in Brazoria County, the Richwood Municipal Court website has its citation payment link in red to catch your attention – but it takes you to the home page of the payment provider, from which you have to navigate to the payment page. The link to Richwood Municipal Court’s online payments on CourtReference’s Online Resources page will take you directly to the payment page; just scroll down to our Online fine payments category. Speaking of Richwood Municipal Court, where is the link to its information about pleas, or the Driving Safety Course? They’re in the drop-down Departments menu but they only appear when you hover over Municipal Court. If you reached that website by searching for “Richwood Municipal Court” you wouldn’t see those links. CourtReference makes them easy to find, in our Self help, legal research… category.

In Decatur County, Georgia, the Bainbridge Municipal Court website has the clerk’s phone number and a brief description of the court, then some unrelated news items, then (if the “news” didn’t stop you) a link to its online fine payment. The court also has a searchable calendar, which is not found on the court website (the “Events Calendar” on that page doesn’t include court dates). It’s on our Online Resources page, in the Dockets, calendars… category.

Finally, in Blackford County, Indiana, the Clerk’s office website has contact information and hours – and very little else. You wouldn’t know from looking at this website that you can search for Blackford County case records online. Indiana has a statewide online record search, which you can find by clicking the “Online Resources” link under Blackford County Circuit Court or Superior Court. From our Online Resources page, you’ll find the case record search link in our Searching Case Records category – along with other searches including protective order records. In our other categories, you can check the court calendars and find links to laws, court rules, legal help, and forms.

I could go on and on about how much information you can find on CourtReference. Just because a court has a website doesn’t mean you can find it easily online. When you do find it, it may note have all the information you desire. On CourtReference, you can click once to select a state, click once to select a county, and voila! – the court contact information, a direct link to its website (if it has one), and links to many more helpful resources than you are likely to find on the best court websites.



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Mental Illness Commitments

September 26th, 2014 · No Comments

Our 2008 blog post about mental illness cases introduced two aspects of that topic. Last month we covered Mental Health Courts – specialized court programs which can set up treatment in lieu of incarceration for some criminal offenders with mental health problems. For those offenders, their mental illness may have been a contributing factor in their commission of a crime, but is not severe enough to warrant commitment to a mental institution.

In order to be committed, a mentally-ill person must be dangerous to himself or herself or to others, or be unable to care for himself or herself. Criteria vary from state to state, but are generally quite restrictive. In most states, for example, an expressed desire to kill oneself is not sufficient, but an actual attempt usually is. At least one – and usually two – independent evaluations by a psychiatrist are required before the court hears the case.

In many states, courts of general jurisdiction handle involuntary commitments. In other states, jurisdiction falls to the Probate Court. In Michigan, for example, involuntary commitments are handled by Probate Court, and both Genesee County Probate Court and Grand Traverse County Probate Court have detailed explanations of the process. In Texas, jurisdiction varies by county; commitments may be handled by County Constitutional Courts, County Courts at Law, or Probate Courts. Dallas County Probate Court has a special division: Dallas County Mental Illness Court.

In New Jersey, commitments are handled by Superior Courts – which in New Jersey are courts of general jurisdiction serving a single county, or two smaller counties. In Kansas, commitments are handled by District Court; in Maryland, by Circuit Court ; and in Mississippi, by Chancery Court.

People who find themselves in Mental Health Courts are there because they have committed a crime, so those courts are part of the criminal justice system. Mentally-ill people facing involuntary commitment have committed no crime, so their cases are heard in civil courts. But because they face a loss of liberty, they are entitled to the services of an attorney, just like a criminal defendant. In most states, they are entitled to the services of a Public Defender or appointed counsel if they cannot afford to hire an attorney. Some state Public Defender offices have special divisions dedicated to this task, such as the Fort Bend County Mental Health Public Defender’s Office in Texas, and the New Jersey Public Defender Office’s Division of Mental Health Advocacy. Note that in New Jersey, the court can order a temporary commitment with provision for a hearing within 20 days, which includes assignment of counsel for unrepresented patients (NJ Superior Court Rule 4:74-7).

To discover which court in your state handles mental illness commitments, go to CourtReference and select your state; there is a chart on the main state page that shows which case types are handled by which courts.


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Mental Health Courts

August 26th, 2014 · 1 Comment

Lately there have been a disturbing number of news reports about mentally-ill people being shot by police. The need for better training of police to deal with the mentally ill has been amply covered by other blogs. But mentally-ill people who survive their encounter with law enforcement have a chance for better treatment from the court system – and that’s where this blog comes in.

Back in 2008 we touched on two different aspects of court procedure involving people with mental health problems. A court system’s involvement with a mentally ill person may occur when the person is facing involuntary commitment to an institution, and we’ll explore that aspect in more detail next month.

The criteria for involuntary commitment are very specific and limited, and simple commission of a crime by a mentally-ill person is not one of them. If a mentally-ill person commits a crime but does not need to be committed, should the justice system treat that person the same as any other perpetrator? Many court systems have answered “no” and created a special program called a Mental Health Court.

Mental Health Courts are not a separate “court” in any court system; although some courts may have a dedicated judge or docket, they are usually held in the same courtroom with the same judge as other criminal cases. They are a program that falls into the category of “problem-solving courts” or “accountability courts” or “collaborative courts” or similar language, depending on location. But the concept is the same: a procedure to help the individual avoid future encounters with the criminal justice system through supervision and treatment. Simply incarcerating a drug addict or mentally-ill individual doesn’t fix the problem that led to their offense, and they are likely to re-offend when they’re eventually released. Problem solving courts aim to break that cycle.

We’ve already explored several other types of problem-solving or collaborative court programs. Drug Courts are the most common, and we’ve talked about them in 2008 and again in 2014. Note that Drug Courts – started in 1989 - numbered over 200o in 2008 and now number over 2800. Others that we have explored include Veterans Court (which addresses both drug and mental health issues),  Family Dependency Treatment Court, juvenile and non-juvenile diversion programs, and Teen Court. All of these share similar goals and practices:

  • providing offenders with treatment and other services to help them overcome the problems that brought them into the justice system
  • collaboration between the court, other justice system components, and social service providers such as counselors, treatment centers, and schools
  • close supervision by the court to insure compliance with the program
  • reducing costs and jail populations
  • reducing recidivism
  • helping individuals avoid the stigma of a criminal conviction

Mental Health Courts are among the fastest growing problem-solving courts. They are a response to the increasing numbers of mentally-ill inmates in the prison system. Treatment and medication in a jail or prison setting is very expensive and is rarely effective. Mental Health Courts, like other problem-solving courts, are selective: they may only accept individuals charged with misdemeanors or non-violent offenses; they may screen individuals and only accept those they deem likely to benefit or who have specific diagnoses; and they usually only accept individuals who voluntarily apply. Many court systems have separate adult and juvenile Mental Health Courts. They include not only the judge and court staff, but also defense counsel, the prosecutor’s office, the probation department, and community social and mental health service providers.

Mental Health Court programs universally include treatment such as counseling and  psychotherapy (which may include a period of residential treatment), medication management, and regular reporting to the court/probation department/service providers. Many programs include additional elements such as education, job placement help, and parenting skills instruction.

Length of the program depends on the individual participant’s treatment needs and compliance with the program. Incidents of non-compliance can extend the length of the program. Because mental-illness treatment is a long-term process, the treatment program is usually longer than a typical jail sentence for the same offense. Most programs result in dismissal of charges for successful participants, although some may require a guilty plea (with credit for time served in treatment) for more serious offenses.

Mental Health Courts, like Drug Courts and other problem-solving courts, can use sanctions such as temporary incarceration to enforce compliance with the program. But they are more likely to use incentives and positive reinforcement for participants who comply with the program.

Here are just a few examples from around the country: Tucson AZ where City Court has a dedicated Mental Health Division; Orange County, CA with two programs (Opportunity Court and “Whatever It Takes” Court), Delaware’s statewide program, Georgia’s many programs (just scroll down the page and look for “Mental Health Court”), Idaho’s statewide resources and local programs, the Will County IL program from the perspective of the Public Defender’s Office, MD’s Baltimore City District Court program, New York’s many district- and county-based programs, Orange County NC’s Community Resource Court, Pennsylvania’s many county-based programs, Harris County TX with its separate Felony and Juvenile Mental Health Court programs, and the Spokane County WA District Court program (which includes links to its application form and annual reports).

All these and more can be found on CourtReference, in our Self Help and Legal Research category. As with other problem-solving courts, studies have shown that they do reduce recidivism – as well as homelessness and mental-illness hospitalizations. Unfortunately, many mentally-ill people don’t receive the same level of attention, treatment, and incentive. That some people’s best hope for help with their illness is to get arrested is a sad commentary on the state of mental health awareness and treatment in our society.

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