If you or a loved one is involved in a court case or you need to run a background check on someone, it's a good idea to check court records for the status of the litigation. The beauty of court records is that you don't need any special permission to inspect them. Most court filings are public record, so anyone can search them in person or online. The practicalities are a bit clunky, however, since each state or county court has its own database of the proceedings.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
You'll need to know where a case was heard and the name of the defendant to look up court cases in person or online.
How to Find a Court Case Offline
To begin, you'll need to know which court has jurisdiction over the case. If you're named in the case, the county, court and case number will be listed on the summons you've received. If you're looking up cases as an interested member of the public, knowing where at least one of the parties lives is a clue as to where the case was heard.
Now, call or visit the county courthouse. Most courts have a public access terminal where you can search that court's records for free, typically by typing in the name of a party or the case number. Otherwise, visit the court clerk's office and ask about the procedure for accessing case files. Be aware that you cannot inspect case records anonymously. The clerk will almost certainly ask you to sign a document request form which remains part of the public record.
How to Find a Court Case Number Online
Each state and county has its own arrangements for accessing court records online, so move forward based on the relevant court's procedures. Where the court keeps records online – and not all of them do – you'll generally search for a case number by logging into the court's case management system, selecting the court where the case is filed, then searching for a case by the defendant's name, hearing date or attorney. This isn't as complicated as it sounds: just follow the instructions on screen. To find your state's or county's public database, type "[state] court records" or "[county] court records" into a search engine. As with in-person searches, you must know the name of the the individual court where the case is filed. Statewide searches are not possible.
Free Federal Court Records Search
The federal courts maintain a central database of case files so you have only one place to look for federal court records – the internet-based Public Access to Court Electronic Records or PACER. To use PACER, you'll first need to register for an account using the online registration form. Once registered, use the "Case Locator" function to find the case you're interested in. Navigating the site can be a little complicated, so it's worth spending a few minutes on the training module to familiarize yourself with the system. The training module includes data from real cases so you can see what information is available and how to access it through the website.
If you're accessing PACER remotely, there's a charge of 10 cents for every page you view with a maximum charge of $3.00 per document. Visit the court where the case was filed, however, and you can use a public access terminal to search and view the documents for free. Most cases created before 1999 are available only in paper format. You can view these files in-person by visiting the courthouse where the case was filed.
What Information Can You Get Online?
Different states publish different records. Some put criminal records online; others might publish only traffic violations, civil cases such as evictions, personal injury and debt collection, and family cases such as divorce. If the case register you're interested in is published, you typically will get access to petitions, hearings and trials, notices, judgments and reminders. You may or may not be able to inspect copies of the documents in the file.
Expect some information to be protected – you generally cannot access personal identifiers such as a defendant's Social Security number, home addresses or the name of a minor. Be aware, too, that some courts will let you access case files only if you are the person named in the court case or the guardian of a named minor. If you can't find what you're looking for, call the clerk's office of the relevant court and ask whether it's possible to inspect the court record, or whether the information is hidden from public view.