Criminal court records are the records that are created in the course of a criminal hearing or trial. Different courts include different documents and papers in its records files, usually in accordance with jurisdictional law and custom. It follows, then, that there are many different types of criminal court records, from transcripts, trial motions, and briefs to conviction orders and sentencing guidelines. What is stored and what is accessible to the public usually depends on location.
The most common criminal court record is the court’s final judgment and opinion. A final judgment sets out whether the court found the defendant innocent or guilty, and the opinion explains why. How the court applied the law and how it interpreted the facts are usually set out in detail in a criminal opinion.
The opinion and judgment are often the most valuable criminal court records to attorneys and legal researchers. In most court systems, court documents are public records, which means that they are available for public searching. Attorneys will conduct legal research to find and read criminal opinions from courts in the jurisdiction where they practice. This allows them to stay abreast of how the law is being interpreted, and to try to get a sense of how the courts are likely to rule on a case with similar facts. Written opinions can also be used as persuasive evidence in legal briefs and motions in later trials.
Most criminal court records contain much more than a case’s outcome. Court records are typically built like files of all documents that enter into the court’s consideration in the course of hearing a particular case. In criminal matters, this often involves descriptions of physical evidence and witness depositions. The parties’ motions, petitions, and other filings are also usually included. Sometimes the transcripts of hearings, trials, and jury selection processes are, too.
It is important to differentiate criminal court records from criminal records. A person’s criminal record is a record that details the number of offenses a person has committed, and documents the number of convictions associated with an individual’s name. A criminal court record may reference a defendant’s criminal record, but a court record is a record of court proceedings in a single case, not of legal infractions generally.
Although most court records are public, not all criminal court records are actually available for public viewing. Criminal cases more than most other kinds of cases often involve sensitive details and documents that can sometimes be graphic. The records of most violent crimes, including homicides and rapes, are typically issued under seal for at least a set period of time in order to protect victims’ privacy. Records under seal are also sometimes called confidential records. Attorneys and others are still able to access these records, but usually only by special petition.
Different courts have different means of making criminal court records available. Court records that are not confidential or under seal are usually available for viewing at the courthouse. Depending on the volume of files that a court maintains and the date of a requested record, an appointment may be necessary to give court staff enough time to locate the relevant files.
Increasingly, criminal court records are also available online. Online searches for criminal court records almost always bring up the final judgment and opinion, and often the supporting documents leading up to that judgment, as well. The breadth of availability of court records online and the fees for online access, if any, vary by court and by jurisdiction.