The California Public Records Act (CPRA) gives individuals, corporations, partnerships and limited liability companies the right to inspect California public records, including civil and criminal court cases, as well as family and probate cases. Typically, members of the public do not have access to juvenile records. Usually, the court clerk’s office gathers, maintains and distributes the files for trial, municipal and small claims cases.
The majority of California court records come from the trial courts in each of the state’s 58 counties. The appellate court and Supreme Court also have court case files. California codes permit inspecting and copying records. Some information can be sealed by the court or otherwise protected from disclosure by law to the public. The court does not assemble or compile the information in any manner, but simply makes it available. Individuals may go to the courthouse to obtain records.
Sometimes, the court staff must find the records and examine the files for exempted information. The superior or trial court system provides online access to records or case information. Internet-based information brokers offer online access to millions of records for a range of fees.
Researchers may obtain civil and criminal court documents using the name of the plaintiff or defendants. Court files contain a variety of information, including the initial complaint and motions. The files may also have other documents or exhibits admitted by the court. In some cases, a party may request that the judge “seal” documents and other items pertaining to the case. This process keeps the information from public disclosure.
Federal and state laws may place limits on how long certain information may appear in public records. For example, civil judgments and many criminal convictions may only appear for seven years after convictions, and for the personal use of marijuana the record cannot exceed two years.
Employers and other organizations that use background check reports, which contain information compiled from court records, need to understand the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and California statutes they may have to follow to comply with the law. For example, some situations require the individual’s consent before information can be obtained. The regulations also dictate how employers must proceed when using the information to make “adverse” employment decisions, such as denying a job candidate a position or firing an employee based on information uncovered in court records.
Palo Alto attorney James M. Chadwick writes in electronic Access to Court Records that California law requires judges to have significant reasons for sealing records from the public. The court must consider if the person protected by concealing the information would suffer harm if the court denied the request. The judge's reasoning has to be as “narrow” as possible to serve the primary interest. In addition, a better alternative to sealing the information does not exist