- Be Aware Not All Courts Are Online
A surprising number of courts do not have computerized record keeping. Per the latest statistics taken from the Public Record Research System (https://www.brbpublications.com/products/Prrs.aspx), 74.5% of civil courts and 71.45% of criminal courts provide online access to an historical docket index. Does this make you wonder about the so-called instant national background search?
- Online Searching is Generally Limited to Docket Sheets
Most courts that offer online access limit the search to the docket sheet data - opposed to displaying case file images. But checking a courthouse’s computer online docket index is the quickest way to find if case records exist online. Just be sure to check all name variations and spelling variations.
In general, case document images are rarely online, at least for free. Those courts that offer case images are usually subscription based and often require e-filing of documents. The reality is to obtain case documents one must go on-site.
- Learn the Index and What Data is Viewable
All indices are different. For example, some of the questions you need to ask and to be answered are: How far back does the index go? Are all cases online? How current is the index - real time? With 24 hours? With 7 days? What identifiers are needed to search and are shown on results? Is the search countywide, or do other courts in the county need to be searched?
Most civil courts index records by both plaintiffs and defendants, but some courts only index by the defendant name. A plaintiff search can be useful to determine if someone is especially litigious.
- Understand the Search Mechanics
Look for any help screens that may offer advice, such as the use of wildcards. If the search lets you input a partial name this will help you find records that may have name spelling variances. For civil cases, the usual reasonable requirement is a defendant (or plaintiff) name – full name if it is a common name – and the time frame to search – e.g., 2002-2017. For criminal cases, the court may require more identification, such as date of birth (DOB), to ascertain the correct individual.
- Be Aware of Restricted Records
Courts have types of case records, such as juvenile and adoptions, which are not released without a court order. Records may also be sealed form view or expunged. The presiding judge often makes a determination of whether a particular record type is available to the public. Some criminal court records include the arresting officer’s report. In some locations this information is regarded as public record, while in other locations the police report may be sealed.
- Watch for Multiple Courts as Same Location
Do not assume a search is countywide. When the general jurisdiction and limited jurisdiction courts are in the same building and use the same support staff, yes...chances are the record databases are combined as well. But that does not necessarily mean you will receive a search of both databases. Check it out as you may need to do two searches.
- Watch for Overlapping Jurisdictions on Civil Limits
In many states, the general jurisdiction court and the limited jurisdiction court have overlapping dollar amount limits for civil cases. That means cases filed within a certain dollar (such as between $15,000 and $25,000) can be filed in either court. Check both courts; never assume.
- Look for the Lag Time
Depending on the level of due diligence needed, a good searcher needs to know what the time delay is for posting records. Is it a week or more or 24 hours, or in real time? This is important if the search is conducted in connection with high due diligence such as with litigation or hiring matters.
This article is taken from The Manual to Online Public Records 4th Edition by Mike Sankey and Cynthia Hetherington. For more information on this publication, please visit The BRB Bookstore.