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What are California Criminal Court Records?
Criminal court records in California consist of all case files and documents created in relation to a criminal court proceeding within the state's judicial branch. They include documents related to matters currently before the court or matters litigated in the past.
What’s included in a California Criminal Court Record?
The information available on a California criminal court record varies with different court files, depending on how far the case goes. California State law mandates that persons charged with a felony must be brought to trial within 60 days (30 to 45 days for misdemeanors). Early court records will reflect the original charge brought against the named party by the district attorney’s office. If the case makes its way to court, the records will be updated to include a transcript of the preliminary hearing, as well as the different motions filed by the defendant’s legal counsel.
Most cases end with a plea bargain. If a plea bargain is reached between the defendant and the prosecutor, the court record will reflect the terms of the agreement as well as a description of the charges that the defendant has pleaded guilty to. For cases that eventually make it to trial, the evidence and exhibits provided by the prosecutor or defendant become part of the final criminal court record. If a verdict is reached, the court record will include whatever vote the jury reached in regard to the party’s guilt. After sentencing, the details of the sentence are filed as part of the record. Court records may also include sentencing transcripts.
How to Access Criminal Court Records
Interested parties can view, inspect or obtain copies of California criminal court records by:
- Visiting the courtroom in person (superior court or appellate court)
- Submitting a request via mail to the clerk of the respective court
- Requesting records online (via the court's official platform)
- Using alternative record retrieval services
How do I Access California Criminal Records in Person?
Step 1. Find the Right Court
To obtain criminal court records in person, interested parties must first identify the courthouse where the case was tried. This is easier if the requester already knows the city or county where the criminal case was heard. Understanding the state's court system also helps.
The state of California has a hierarchical judicial structure, made up of a Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal and Superior courts. Superior courts serve as the state trial courts with broad jurisdiction over criminal cases, including felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. Records for each case are stored in a registry with specific details such as the criminal case number, the date the case was filed, and the name of the party on record.
Note: California courts of appeal are divided into six districts, while the superior courts are spread across each county (with some counties having more than one).
Step 2. Collect Case Information
To find the case file, requesters will need to submit an application to the courthouse where the case is filed. Pursuant to California Rules of Court (10.851), each trial court in California assigns the task of managing trial records to the court clerk. It's important that formal requests include as much information as possible, such as the case number or name of the parties involved (as stated on the record).
Each county maintains records of all the cases that have been processed in the court. Members of the public who do not already have a case number or know where the case was tried, may need to visit different county courthouses to check their criminal index or search through their court files. For California counties with multiple courts, the master index for cases can be found by visiting the main court.
Note: Cases involving state laws can only be found in county superior courts while federal criminal court records are maintained by the U.S district court for the region.
Step 3. Visit the Courthouse and Submit a Request
A formal request is required to access court records. To simplify and expedite the process, many of the courts in California provide guidelines for requesting records. This may include a specified fee for records as well as a convenient application form. For instance, to obtain Orange County California criminal court records, interested parties must submit a completed copy request form at the nearest Justice Center, detailing the case number, case name, requester’s name, and contact address.
Step 4. Pay Fees to Obtain Copies
Although California state law provides public access to criminal court records, it does not permit the removal of court records. Instead, interested parties are only permitted to make copies of the available records. Requesters will be expected to cover the cost required to make one or multiple copies. An updated list of the court’s fee schedule can be found at the courthouse or official website.
How do I Access California Criminal Records by Mail?
Most courts provide detailed instructions on how to obtain records by mail on their websites. Some courts may require that requesters download and submit a completed application form that contains as much relevant information as possible to assist with the record search. Some of the information that should be included in a mail-in application include:
- The filing date of the case
- The name(s) of the defendant (in full)
- The exact type of document required (transcript, court decree, trial docket, etc)
Most courts also require that requests include a check or money order to cover the cost of the records as well as a large self-addressed envelope so the records can be mailed back. Mailing details such as the court’s address can be found on the court’s website.
How to Find California State Criminal Court Records Online
Many of the Superior courts in California provide online access to public court records. Interested parties can search for records online by visiting the official website for the respective county court.
The steps to securing records vary with each county. For instance, the Superior court of California for Orange County provides online access to records via a Case Search service that allows for searches by case/citation number or person or business name. It also maintains an online case index search, so requesters can search for case information by case number and case type. Similarly, the Santa Clara Superior Court provides an online searchable index of criminal cases filed in its court. With it, members of the public can conduct searches by business name, filing date or case number.
However, not all counties provide online access to public criminal records. For instance, although the San Francisco Superior Court provides civil records online, it only services in-person and mail-in requests for criminal records.
Note: Not all criminal court records are available online. Older records are often held in physical storage and can only be obtained by visiting the court in person or sending a written request for copies, depending on the type of record.
Obtaining Online Court Records from California Appellate Courts
Interested parties can obtain information on cases maintained by the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals using the California Appellate Courts Case Information System. The state of California has six appellate districts, each of which oversees appeals for trials held in counties within their district.
Are all California Criminal Records Public?
Majority of criminal court records are public records and open to inspection by residents, except in instances where:
- Portions of the criminal court document contain sensitive/private personal information
- The criminal court records involve a juvenile
- The court records have been sealed by a judge
Note: Juvenile court proceedings may be open to the public in cases where juveniles are charged for committing a very severe crime or cases where the state chooses to charge juveniles as adults.
How do I find California Public Records for Free?
Under California law, all public records are free. Interested parties can view public records by contacting the government agency that manages the records. For instance, public records of sex offenders registered in the state can be obtained using the state's Sex Offender Registry maintained by the Department of Justice. Similarly, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) provides an online inmate locator tool that members of the public can use to find information on inmates. However, most departments charge a nominal fee for public record requests. This is done to cover the cost of secondary services such as record retrieval and printing.
Are Trial Transcripts Available to the Public?
In the state of California, trial transcripts or recordings are not filed as part of the court record and therefore not managed by the court clerk. Interested parties who wish to inspect or view trial transcripts have to contact the attendant court reporter, defense attorney, or prosecutor for the case. Copies of court proceedings may also be available at some courts. For instance, the Superior Court of California for Santa Clara processes requests for court transcripts for felony criminal cases from 2017 to date. Similarly, Orange County provides access to some of the transcripts and recordings of criminal court proceedings via the Courts Reporters Services (CRS). Requests for transcripts must include as much information as possible, including the name of the court reporter, case number, and date of the proceeding.
Understanding Criminal Court Records
Searching the Court Index
A good way to track down criminal court records is to review the court’s index. In compliance with California Rules of Court (rule 10.851.), every superior court maintains an index that lists all the criminal cases that have been filed with the court. Cases are permanently included in the index, even if the case is dismissed with no finding of guilt. However, the index doesn’t provide information on the disposition of cases.
Using Dockets and Calendars
California courts maintain a daily and weekly docket that lists pending criminal cases. They also maintain an updated calendar that includes the names of persons scheduled to go before the court. Entries in the calendar may also be organized by the name of the presiding judge.
Are California Grand Jury Transcripts Public?
In compliance with California Penal Code section 938.1(b), the state of California provides public access to grand jury transcripts. However, grand jury transcripts are only available if the defendant is indicted. In which case, public access is provided ten days after the transcript has been received by the defendant. Not all grand jury transcripts are public. Transcripts that contain information that may undermine the defendant’s right to a fair trial may be sealed by a court order. Transcripts of grand jury proceedings where the jury voted "not to indict" are also sealed from public view.
Are Court Probation Reports open to the Public?
In compliance with California state law (1203.05), probation records are only open for 60 days from the day of sentencing. After this period, the records are permanently sealed and protected from public view. However, probation reports may be open if the named person on record commits a new crime. If this happens, the report can only be obtained by contacting the older court where the initial conviction was given.
What's in a Probation Report?
Probation reports contain different types of information, some of which may include:
- A recommended sentence
- A description of the crime and circumstances around it
- The defendant’s work and family history
- The defendant’s criminal record
- Prior criminal charges (if any) and a list of the courts where they were filed
How do I Obtain Federal Criminal Court Records Online?
Records of persons tried for violating federal criminal law in California are preserved in the federal court system. The state of California has four federal courts spread across the Northern, Eastern, Central and Southern Districts. However, most of the records filed in these courts are managed under a centralized registry and can be accessed via the Public Access to Court Electronics service (also known as PACER).
To obtain federal criminal records via PACER, interested parties must have a registered account with the platform. This can be done by filling out the online registration form and providing personal information such as:
- The individual’s first and last name
- Home address and phone number
- Date of birth
- Description of the user (defendant, plaintiff, media professional, lawyer, etc).
Once an account is active, users can search through the registry to find criminal court records. Searches are quicker and easier if requesters already know the specific court that houses the record. Alternatively, requesters may conduct a broader using a name or case number. However, this may take longer and lead to wider and sometimes unrelated results.
Publicly available records are accessible from some third-party websites. These websites offer the benefit of not being limited by geographical record availability and can often serve as a starting point when researching specific or multiple records. To find a record using the search engines on these sites, interested parties must provide:
- The name of someone involved providing it is a not a juvenile
- The assumed location of the record in question such as a city, county, or state name
Third party sites are not government sponsored websites, and record availability may differ from official channels.
Obtaining Copies of Older Federal Criminal Records
Interested parties can obtain copies of older criminal court records by submitting a mail or online request to the National Archives. Requesters will be required to provide a completed application form for criminal records detailing the case location, case number, names of parties involved, type of information required and delivery information.