Types of Court Records

United States Caseloads

Caseloads in the United States have been dropping since 2006, and are now at an a 10 year low

Graph courtesy of UScourts.gov

The Court System of the United States handle a myriad trials, hearing, judgements, and findings. The number of incoming cases in 2006 reached an all time high of over 100 million, meaning that for every three americans, there was one new criminal, civil, or other type of case or hearing entered into the legal system. While these numbers have dropped significantly, over the last 10 years, The United States remains one of the world’s leaders in number of cases entered, in progress, or closed every year.

Courts in the United States handle a large variety disputes. When a citizen is in need of governmental help, the courts’ function is to provide an unbiased arbiter to hear both sides, look at evidence, and make a decision deemed to be fair. When a contractor fails to complete a job but still collects payment, the aggrieved party can take that contractor to small claims court to demand his money back. When a citizen is apprehended for suspected crimes by state police, the government opens prosecution against that citizen if there is enough evidence to convince a jury and convict the suspect of their alleged crime. When one company believes there have been unfair bias or practices from a competing company, they can open a lawsuit to make up for the loss of money that came as a result of those unfair practices. Even two people who are married will need to attend divorce court to divide holdings fairily in the presence of an arbiter of judge.

The sheer vastness of the court system is only rivaled by the number of different types of disputes that need closure and arbitration. So when looking for a court record, it is advised to know which type of court records is needed.

Criminal Court Records

Criminal Court is specifically designed to prosecute and punish those believed to have committed a crime. These alleged criminals are almost always prosecuted by the state, as they are the ones that have been offended by having their law breached. The state will levy evidence, argument, and testimony in an effort to convince a jury. (during a jury trial, common for felonies) or a judge (in a criminal hearing, common for misdemeanors and violations/infractions). The defense, meanwhile, is appointed an attorney in the event they cannot afford one, and must show that they either did not commit the crime, or that there were extenuating circumstances or some mitigating factor (temporary insanity, provocation, youth, or emotional distress). In this way, the criminal justice system of the United States attempts to find the truth behind alleged offenses, and prosecute those that “without a shadow of a doubt” are guilty of their crimes.

The person responsible for filing suit against an alleged criminal is known as the District Attorney (DA), though the title of this office can vary depending on the jurisdiction. For example, the County of St. Louis in Missouri calls their chief prosecutor a prosecuting attorney. They represent the state, county, or city in matters of criminal prosecution. Their propose is to determine if there is sufficient evidence to prosecute an alleged criminal, and file a suit against them if they believe there is enough evidence to convict. Filings for criminal defendants are on a downturn since 2016, when the overall number of new criminal filings fell 5 percent down to 75,861 in 2017.

Criminal records are typically found in courts, law enforcement agencies, or via background checks through the local, municipal, city, county, or state government. Visit the website of the area in question to begin your search into criminal records, or use websites like StateRecords.org to simplify the search.

Civil Court Records

While these cases take place in court, they are not typically about breaking a criminal law. Civil cases are typically about private citizens or organizational bodies like companies that sue each other for a variety of reasons. These reasons almost always are related to seeking reparation for unfair acts or business practices.

Civil Court has a wide variety of uses, and in some cases there is crossover with criminal courts.

  • Small claims cases are cases where one party seeks money for service rendered, but no payment yielded, or vice versa. One example that happened in April, 2019, is when a the car repair service Jiffy Lube was forced to pay nearly $10,000 to a customer who was given bad service. Another, smaller example can be seen Lincoln Nebraska, where a small business owner sued a person for giving his business a low review online. Small claims cases typically deal with amounts of less than $10,000, but this limit can change depending on the area. More affluent areas typically have larger thresholds, while lower income areas keep the amount necessary even lower.

  • General civil cases are similar to small claims, but involve larger disputed amounts. These cases typically involve suing someone over broken contracts, reparations for damage done to property, or someone getting hurt while on another person’s property. One example took place in Harris County Civil Court, where the County of Harris, TX sued a company for violating the Texas Clean Air Act, and more. Another famous example of a general civil case happened in 1988 when Apple Computer Inc. sued Microsoft for their use of graphical user interfaces (rather than text based interfaces of previous computer generations).

  • Landlord and tenant cases are similar to the above in that it is a dispute over a value. The difference with landlord cases are ones where a landlord is attempting to either evict a tenant from rental property, or a tenant who has moved out is attempting to retrieve their security deposit. These cases are particularly common in larger cities where renting is more common than outright owning property, and especially when practices like rent control are in effect. In the Civil Court of the City of New York, New York’s Civil District Court, and the Queens County Civil Court, for example, landlord related cases are common. Changes to the law are frequent, and can favor either side.

  • Probate Court is related to officials orders to care for someone who cannot care for themselves, or in matters of personal affairs like wills. These cases are not usually contentious or controversial, but instead are a measure of safety for the people in society who cannot care for themselves physically, financially, or otherwise. Occasionally a will dispute will arise, and this is the court where such matters are handled.

Civil Court cases are largely about assigning blame, or making sure the wronged are properly compensated. They differ from criminal cases because they handle more matter of opinion rather than cold, hard evidence and facts. Because of this, they are far more common than even criminal cases, and many can go unresolved.

New York Graffiti Murals

A New York landlord destroyed graffiti murals when tearing down his building to make way for high rise apartments. He now owes close to $7 million to the artists.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Divorce Records Court

When a couple decides to annul a marriage or get divorced, they must consult legal counsel to make the decision final. Similar to when the couple signed marriage papers or marriage records, they must again agree upon divorce papers and terms before finalizing the divorce.

In most cases, a divorce must be initiated at a supreme court, though in some cases, district court or family court can help to initiate the process.

Divorce law is typically considered quite complicated, and hiring a lawyer advisable. In order to start a divorce case, you must establish which municipality the hearing must take place in. You must also establish sufficient grounds for the divorce. Some examples of grounds are:

  • Cruel and inhuman treatment
  • Abandonment
  • Irretrievable breakdown in the relationship lasting at least 6 months
  • Living separately pursuant to a separation judgement or agreement
  • Adultery
  • Confinement of one of the spouses for a time of at least three consecutive years

Bankruptcy Records Court

Both State-based and Federal Bankruptcy Courts help to serve those who have lost control of their financial situations in the United States. They are created under Article 1 of the United States Constitution. The current system for bankruptcy courts went into effect of 1984.

Each of the 94 federal judicial districts hold original jurisdiction over matters of bankruptcy. Many times, however, these courts refer these cases to local bankruptcy courts. The vast majority of all proceedings in bankruptcy court are held before a bankruptcy judge, whose decisions can, in turn, be appealed back to the district court.

Decisions for bankruptcy court are not collected and published in an official reporter sponsored by the government. The default official source for bankruptcy court is West’s Bankruptcy Reporter.

Individuals seeking financial relief through bankruptcy may file under several different chapters of the United States Bankruptcy Code.

  • Chapter 7 - Liquidation. This is most common form of bankruptcy. It involves the appointment of a trustee who collects the non-exempt property of the debtor, sells it, and distributes the gained value to creditors.

  • Chapter 9 - Reorganization (for municipalities). This is only available to municipalities. This is a reorganization of values and property to aid a municipality that has declared bankruptcy. It happened to Orange County, CA from 1994 to 1996. It also happened to Detroit MI in 2013.

  • Chapter 11, 12, and 13 - Reorganization (for individuals). This chapter details a complex reorganization. It allows the debtor to keep some of their property and use future earnings to pay off creditors. Chapter 11 is a rare circumstance, Chapter 12 is only available to “family farmers” or “family fisherman” and typically is more generous to the debtors when compared to Chapter 13, of which it is quite similar.

Knowing which record you need, and knowing where to find it can help save a lot of time when researching court records. It helps you know where the record is kept, and what is involved in retrieving the record. While these court records are available, sometimes they are difficult to find. If you encounter difficulty in finding these court records, sites like StateRecords may be able to help.