How Not to Find Case Records

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Last month’s post was a refresher course about how to find case records. It did mention simply Googling “court records” (“case records” will produce similar results) before suggesting better options. I’d like to explain a bit more about why Google is not the most efficient way to find case records.

Each court system maintains its own case records, perhaps on a statewide or countywide database, or a court-specific database, or (yes, even in this day and age) in paper files in steel filing cabinets, or on microfilm (to be fair, that last method is mostly used for older cases that the court hasn’t gotten around to digitizing). If the records are in a database, they are freely available to the court system personnel; they may or may not be available online to the general public. If they are available to the general public, they may or may not be free. But one thing all these case records have in common is that they are maintained by people – court system employees – most often, employees of the clerk’s office of each court.

Whether the people who maintain these records are in the court clerk’s office or the state court administrator’s office, they know where the records are, what they contain, and how to access them. If the records are available online to the general public, these people try to make them easy to find by putting a link to the records on the individual court’s website, and/or the state court system’s website.

For example, the New Mexico Judicial Branch maintains a statewide database of case records. There is a link to it on the New Mexico Judicial Branch home page. People use this website for many things in addition to searching for case records, so you have to hunt for the “On-Line Case Lookup” link in the left column of the home page, and it’s toward the bottom of the list of links. But it’s there, and Google finds it. If you Google “new mexico court records” it’s at the very top of the list of over 4,000 search results. So far so good.

For another example, California does not have a statewide case record search. California case records are maintained at the county level. If you Google “california court records” you get over 30,000 results. The first result is the  California Judicial Branch home page, where you will eventually find the “Access to Judicial Administrative Records” link in the center of the page, about a third of the way down the page. But as the link title implies, it’s not a link to the records, it’s a link to a discussion about access to the records. After you’ve read most of the page, you’ll come to the explanation that the records are maintained by each county Superior Court, and a link to local court websites. You can use that link to find links to each county’s Superior Court website, where you can again start to hunt for links to the records. What Google can’t tell you is that you have to hunt for those records on a county-by-county basis. Although Google puts the California Judicial Branch at the top of its search results, the rest of the links on the first page of results are all to commercial services that charge a fee to show you the records (the one exception is to a Yahoo Answers question about searching California case records, but the answers are mostly confusing or just plain wrong).

Finally, let’s take a look the Louisiana Judicial Branch home page, which has no links to case record information. That’s because Louisiana has no statewide public case records database, and most of its local online case record searches are contracted out to commercial for-profit companies. Many individual Louisiana parish District Courts and some City Courts have online record searches, but because most of them are run by private companies, they require registration and payment of search fees and/or subscriptions. If you Google “louisiana court records” the first result is the Judicial Branch home page with no information about records, and rest of the results on the first page are  all to commercial services that will sell you case records.

Google’s search algorithms do an amazing job of finding a lot of information very quickly, but it’s not always the exact information you’re looking for. Google looks for patterns of keywords in online documents, so it’s going to find a lot of websites that talk about case records or court records – not necessarily the websites that have those records. That’s why it finds so many websites that want to sell you those records. It will also find websites that might contain court records based on the type of website. That’s why it does find the state court system’s home page, and usually puts it at the top of the search results. Whether or not that state court system home page can lead you to case records is a different – and possibly labyrinthine – story.

If you’ve been reading this blog, and using CourtReference to find case records, then you already know that many courts have websites with links to their online record searches, but that many of them are maintained at the county or local level. It only stands to reason that the most efficient way to find those local court records is to find the local court website, and then find the record search link on that website. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could go to a website with court information organized by state and then by county? Wouldn’t it be even nicer if that website also included direct links to each court system’s and court’s online record search, so that you wouldn’t have to hunt for it on the court website?  CourtReference is that nice website.

Let’s revisit our examples via CourtReference instead of Google. Suppose you want to search New Mexico court records but you don’t know that New Mexico has a statewide search. You could go to a specific county page (say, Eddy County) on CourtReference, click the Eddy County 5th Judicial District Court website link, and see the “Case Lookup” link in the left column of that court website. Or you could just click CourtReference’s “Online Resources” link for that court, and get the direct link to the case record search at the very top of the page of results. If you already knew that New Mexico has a statewide search, you could simply go to CourtReference’s main New Mexico page and select “Search Court Case Records” from the “Choose a Court Resource Category” drop-down menu. That will get you CourtReference’s New Mexico Court Case Records page, with links to the main statewide record search, a separate statewide lower-court criminal record search, and all available local county searches.

How about California? This time it’s clearly faster than Google. Go to CourtReference’s main California page. Then select a county (say, Alameda County) and click the “Online Resources” link for any Alameda Superior Court location, or just select “Search Court Case Records” from the drop-down to get  all California county searches in alphabetical order by county. Google can’t do that.

Finally, Louisiana. Select any parish, click the court’s “Online Resources” link, and – if that parish has an online search – click the link to the search. It will most likely be a paid search in Louisiana, but CourtReference tells you when a search requires payment before you click on it.

CourtReference can get you to the exact case record search that you’re looking for with a minimum of clicks because we don’t use an algorithm. We use real humans – with legal backgrounds – to locate the record searches and present the links to you. We’re not too far removed from the people who maintain the records in the first place. Happy searching!

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