Knight Digital Media Center Multimedia Training

Tutorial: Criminal Court Records

By Paul Grabowicz

For updates and discussion on this tutorial, visit:
http://kdmc.berkeley.edu/tutorials/criminal-court-records/

Introduction

When a prosecutor formally charges a person with a crime a criminal court case is generated.

In cases involving California law, a person is formally charged with a crime by a county district attorney in a county superior court.

For federal cases, a U.S. Attorney's Office will file charges in a U.S. district court.

Criminal court records are presumed open to public inspection, unless a judge has granted a motion by the prosecutor or the defense attorney requesting that some of the records be sealed.

Portions of documents filed in criminal court records that contain personal information about people may also be "redacted" or edited out by a county clerk to protect a person's privacy or safety.

The other instance in which criminal court records often are not open to the public is when the person charged is a juvenile.

Court procedures vary from state to state and between state and federal courts. But they share many of the same general characteristics.

This guide describes for reporters what court documents are available in California criminal cases, and also provides a summary of federal courts.

This is not intended as a legal guide or a guide to criminal law. Court procedures are only described so reporters can better understand what kinds of records are filed in court cases and when those records become available during the criminal court process.

Indexes to Criminal Court Records

Each criminal court has an alphabetical name index a reporter can use to find criminal cases filed against people in that court. The index should be on a computer terminal at the criminal court clerk's office.

Each case listed in the index will have the person's name, the criminal case number, the date the criminal case was filed, and sometimes the penal code section for the charge that was filed against the person.

To get the actual criminal case file, copy down the case number and present it to a court clerk.

Each individual court keeps its own index. There is no free, publicly available master index of all criminal cases you can search to find all the cases filed against a particular person in every court.

So you have to go to each court separately - both county superior courts and U.S. district courts - to check its index of criminal cases and look up the court files there.

Criminal cases involving federal law are filed in U.S. district courts. There usually are several U.S. district courts in a state, each serving a particular geographic area.

Criminal cases involving state law will be in a county superior court. There is a superior court in each county in California, and in larger counties there may be several branches of the superior court in different sections of the county.

Each county superior court will have an index of the criminal cases it has handled. In counties with multiple superior court branches, the main superior court should have a master index of all the criminal cases being handled in all the branches in that county.

Sample Criminal Indexes

Sacramento County Superior Court Index

At the page, click at the bottom on Proceed to the Search System. At the next page, in the pull-down menu select Criminal.

Then type in a last name and first name to search for criminal case listings.

For example, do a search for:

Last Name: Puente

First Name: Dorothea

This will retrieve a listing for the criminal case that was filed against a woman accused of murdering nine of her boarders so she could collect their government benefits checks (she was convicted of three of the killings).

Calendars and Dockets for Criminal Courts

Each court keeps a daily and weekly calendar or “docket” of pending criminal cases that are coming up for some kind of court hearing.

These calendars usually list the names of the defendants, the case numbers, the date and time each court appearance is going to be held, and the judge’s courtroom (or “department”) where the hearing is being held.

Daily calendars are kept on what’s happening in court that day, and advance calendars list cases coming up in the next several days or week.

The calendars are organized by the names of the judges in the court, listing after each judge's name the cases they will be hearing. The calendars are not organized by the names of the defendants.

Each individual court - county superior courts and U.S. district courts - keeps its own calendars. There is no free, publicly available master calendar that can be searched to find all criminal cases pending against a particular person in every court.

So you have to go to each court separately to check its calendar of criminal cases.

Sample Calendars:

To see a calendar, click on the calendar icon next to a judge's name. The listings for criminal cases begin with the letters cr.

Criminal Complaints

A criminal complaint charges a person with a violation of state law and is filed by a county district attorney's office in a county superior court.

In California, if the person has been arrested by police and is in custody, a criminal complaint must be filed and the person arraigned in a superior court within 48 hours of their arrest, unless that falls in a time period when the court is not in session (such as a weekend), in which case it must be within 72 hours.

A criminal complaint lists the charges filed against the defendant, specifically the sections of the state penal code the defendant is accused of violating, and a general description of what the defendant is accused of doing.

Besides the criminal complaint, police reports on the original crime are sometimes attached to the complaint to show what the defendant allegedly did.

However, because of privacy concerns this practice has become less frequent and the courts are redacting or editing out a lot of information in police reports that are filed in court records. Information being removed includes witnesses' and victims' names, addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth, and all social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, ID card numbers, dates of birth, and bank account and credit card numbers.

This can cause delays in accessing the police reports in the court file while the court clerks are redacting them.

Occasionally a criminal complaint will be filed by the California Attorney General's Office, also in a superior court. This can occur when state law enforcement officials, such as at the California Department of Justice, investigate a crime, or when a local district attorney's office has some kind of conflict of interest involving a defendant and the case is turned over to the attorney general for prosecution.

In some instances a prosecutor will present a case to a county criminal grand jury that then will return an indictment against a person in superior court.

Sample Criminal Complaints

Grand Jury Indictments

In some cases a county district attorney will seek to have a person indicted by a grand jury, instead of just filing a criminal complaint.

A grand jury is a group of private citizens selected by the courts, similar to the jury selection process in trials.

But in this case the grand jury meets in secret to hear evidence and witnesses presented by a district attorney and decide whether someone should be charged with a crime.

This is often referred to as a prosecutor drawing up a "bill" that contains the charges the prosecutor seeks to have filed against a person. The district attorney will present evidence and testimony to support the allegations to the grand jury.

If the grand jury decides to indict the accused, that is often referred to as the grand jury returning a "true bill."

Sample Grand Jury Indictment:

Grand Jury Transcripts

In California, a transcript of the grand jury proceedings, including the testimony of witnesses called by the grand jury, should be filed with the court clerk and given to the defendant within 10 days of an indictment. Ten days after the transcript is delivered to the defendant it becomes open to the public (unless a judge grants an order sealing the transcript, usually because it could undermine the defendant's right to a fair trial).

These rules for public release of grand jury transcripts only apply to cases involving state law in California, not federal grand jury indictments.

Otherwise, the criminal court process and the court records created as a result of a grand jury indictment are similar to what happens in cases in which a criminal complaint was filed by the district attorney.

Sample Grand Jury Transcript:

Civil Grand Juries

Another type of county grand jury is called a civil grand jury. This is a panel of citizens appointed by county superior court judges to perform a watchdog role, such as investigating whether a local government agency is doing an effective job of delivering services to the public.

Civil grand juries are completely separate from criminal grand juries and do not have the power to indict people or charge anyone with a crime. Civil grand juries instead issue public reports on their findings.

Misdemeanor Cases and Arraignments

Criminal charges in a cases involving state law are of two types - misdemeanors and felonies (there also are infractions, which are very minor offenses, such as motor vehicle code violations).

Misdemeanor cases involve less serious crimes for which the punishment in California is a fine, probation or a sentence of up to a year a county jail, rather than in state prison (infractions, such as traffic violations, usually involve just paying a fine).

After a person has been charged with a misdemeanor he or she will be arraigned before a superior court judge.

At the arraignment the judge will read the charges to the defendant, who will be apprised of his/her rights, such as to legal counsel, and be asked to enter a plea. A judge may also hear a request from the defendant for a reduction in the amount of bail on which he or she is being held.

In California, after a person is arraigned on a misdemeanor charge, the person must be brought to trial within 30 days if the person is in custody or within 45 days if the person is not (although it is common for the defendant's attorney to request or agree to delays).

The court record in misdemeanor cases thus will include the filing of the original charge against a defendant by the district attorney's office, a record of what occurred at the arraignment, and after that various motions filed in the case by the defense attorney and prosecutor.

Felony Cases

For more serious or violent crimes, the criminal charges are referred to as felonies (some types of crimes can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors, and are referred to as "wobblers").

Punishment for a felony may be serving a year or more in state prison if the defendant is convicted.

After a person has been charged with a felony they will be arraigned before a superior court judge.

At the arraignment a judge will read the charges to the defendant, who will be apprised of his/her rights, such as to legal counsel, and asked to enter a plea. A judge may also hear a request from the defendant for a reduction in the amount of bail on which they are being held.

In California, after a person is arraigned on a felony charge, the person must be brought to trial within 60 days (although it is common for the defendant's attorney to request or agree to delays).

The court record in a felony case thus will include the filing of the original charge against a defendant by the district attorney's office, a record of what occurred at the arraignment, and after that various motions filed in the case by the defense attorney and prosecutor.

A felony case also will include a transcript of a preliminary hearing, which is another step in a felony case (see the next section on preliminary hearings).

Preliminary Hearing

A preliminary hearing is an additional step in the legal process required in felony cases in California. Often referred to as a probably cause hearing, a preliminary examination or simply a PX, this proceeding is conducted by a superior court judge before a felony case can go to trial.

In California, a preliminary hearing must be held within 10 days of a person's arraignment on a felony criminal charge (unless the defendant waives this right and agrees to a delay).

At the preliminary hearing the district attorney's office presents witnesses, often police officers, who describe the evidence in the case against the accused. The attorney for the defendant has the right to cross-examine the witnesses.

If the judge then decides there is significant evidence in the case and probable cause exists to believe a crime was committed and the defendant was responsible, the defendant is "held to answer" on the charges and "bound over" for trail.

This means the defendant with be arraigned again, the prosecutor will file an "information" re-stating the charges, and the case then will be set for possible trial. The trial must occur within 60 days of the defendant's original arraignment, unless the defendant waives this right (which is common).

If the judge rules at the preliminary hearing that there is insufficient evidence for the defendant to be held to answer on felony charges, then the case is dismissed (which is relatively rare).

Whatever the outcome, a transcript of the preliminary hearing will be filed in the court case.

This transcript of the preliminary hearing thus can provide a good summary of the prosecution's case against a defendant.

Sample Prelminary Hearing Transcripts

Plea Bargains

The vast majority of criminal cases - both felonies and misdemeanors - result in plea bargains.

Usually this means the prosecutor will drop some of the original charges against a defendant or reduce a charge to something less severe, in exchange for a guilty plea on the remaining charge or charges. The two sides also will agree on a sentence for the remaining charges (although a judge can overrule such plea bargain agreements).

A description of the charges to which a defendant agrees to plead guilty will be made part of the court record, usually at a  sentencing hearing.

A plea bargain also will result in the preparation of a probation report to guide the judge in evaluating the proposed sentence.

A plea bargain can occur at any point in the criminal court proceeding, including after a formal trial has begun.

Sample Plea Agreement

Jury Trials

If a criminal case goes to trial, 12 citizens will be selected to serve on a jury, along with one or more alternates (alternates are selected in case one of the regular jurors becomes ill or incapacitated or is otherwise unable to serve during the course of the trial).

Jury trials are open to the public (although jury selection, which is known as "voir dire," may be closed in some cases, and conferences between the judge and the attorneys in the case may be held in private during the trial).

Reporters should not interact with jurors in any way during a trial.

General information on the witnesses called and evidence introduced during the trial will be filed in the criminal court record.

Exhibits presented at the trial, such as photographs and other physical evidence, also will be preserved (usually in a separate exhibit room that is part of the county criminal clerk's office).

A record of the jury's verdict will be filed in the criminal court case. Juries in criminal cases must unanimously agree on a guilty verdict, and the legal standard for such a verdict is that the jurors must be certain "beyond a reasonable doubt" of the defendant's guilt.

Transcripts of Trial Testimony

A court reporter also will produce a transcript of the testimony in a jury trial, but that usually is not filed in the court record.

If you want a transcript of testimony in a jury trial, you'll have pay the court reporter to provide you with a copy, or ask either the prosecutor or the defense attorney if you can review their copies.

Death Penalty Cases

In California, the prosecutor can seek a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole or the death penalty in murder cases that involve "special circumstances." These include a variety of circumstances, such as the killing of a law enforcement or other public official, a murder committed in connection with other crimes or a murder that was especially cruel or atrocious.

These special circumstances cases require two jury trials.

The first jury trial determines the person's guilt or innocence, and is very similar to trials involving other criminal charges.

If the jury's verdict is guilty, then a second, mini-trial is held before the same jury to determine punishment - whether the jury wants to impose a death sentence or life in prison without possibility of parole.

Probation and Sentencing Reports

In California, if a defendant in a felony case has been convicted of a crime, a probation report will be prepared on the person.

The report is prepared in both plea bargains and jury verdicts, and it will be filed as part of the court record.

A probation report, prepared by the county probation department, is done to help the judge decide the appropriate sentence for the defendant. The report provides information such as:

The probation reports are sealed 60 days after a person is sentenced and are then no longer publicly available.

The only exception is if the person is charged with a new crime, in which case probation reports from the person's previous convictions are unsealed and available for public inspection in the courts where the previous convictions occurred.

Section 1203.05 of the California Penal Code specifies when a probation report is open to public inspection, including reports filed in a previous court case that should be unsealed when a new charge has been filed against the person:

"Any report of the probation officer filed with the court, including any report arising out of a previous arrest of the person who is the subject of the report, may be inspected or copied only as follows:"

"(a) By any person, from the date judgment is pronounced or probation granted or, in the case of a report arising out of a previous arrest, from the date the subsequent accusatory pleading is filed, to and including 60 days from the date judgment is pronounced or probation is granted, whichever is earlier."

A reporter should bring a copy of the new criminal complaint or even a news clipping about it to give to the clerk at the court for a previous case to show a new charge has been filed against the person and hence an old probation report should be made public again.

Some courts, such as in Alameda County, also have been challenging the right to access probation reports.

Similar reports, sometimes called sentencing or pre-sentencing reports, are filed for people found guilty of misdemeanor crimes and for people found guilty in federal court of federal crimes.

Sample Probation Reports:

Sentencing

If a person enters a plea bargain or is convicted by a jury, the judge then will schedule a sentencing hearing, which will be held within 20 days of a conviction in felony cases. In the interim, a probation report will be prepared on the defendant to aid the judge in sentencing.

For sentencing, the judge might:

If prison or jail time is imposed, the person will get credit for time already served in custody during the criminal proceeding.

A transcript of the hearing at which the judge imposes the sentence will be filed in the court record.

A document describing the formal sentence also will be filed. This details the sentence the defendant received - county jail time, state prison time, suspended sentence, probation, etc. - as well as any credit for time served.

Sample Sentencing Hearing Transcripts

Juvenile Courts

For people under the age of 18 charged with crimes, a separate juvenile court system exists in each county in California.

Juvenile court proceedings and court records generally are not open to the public.

There are exceptions:

For more information on juvenile court proceedings and the circumstances under which court hearings or records are open to the public, see the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press' Access to Juvenile Courts and the section specifically on California.

For more information on juvenile courts in California, including when a juvenile can be tried as an adult, see the official California Courts Web site.

Federal Courts

People accused of violating federal laws will be charged in a U.S. District Court.

These criminal cases are investigated by federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, etc.

Formal criminal charges are brought by a U.S. Attorney's Office.

There are a number of U.S. District Courts in California, each of which covers a particular geographic area of the state.

For example, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California covers counties along the north coast of the state, including the San Francisco Bay Area.

A U.S. District Court also may have several branches. Thus there's a U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which handles cases for the San Francisco Bay Area and counties elsewhere in Northern California. This court in turn has branches in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Eureka.

There is a separate alphabetical criminal index in each U.S. district court of the defendants charged with federal crimes in that court. Each court also keeps a calendar of hearings in pending criminal cases.

Federal Grand Juries

In federal criminal cases, a U.S. Attorney usually will present evidence to a federal grand jury, which then will make a decision on whether to issue a criminal indictment against a person.

The grand jury, which is a panel of ordinary citizens chosen like people selected for a trial jury, has the power to subpoena documents and witnesses in investigating a case and then deciding whether to deliver an indictment. Usually such subpoenas are issued at the request of the U.S. Attorney when he or she is outlining the case to the grand jury.

None of the grand jury proceedings are public.

On rare occasions a federal criminal complaint can be filed directly by a U.S. Attorney, usually when the person being charged waives their right to have the case handled by a grand jury. A complaint like this filed directly by a U.S. Attorney is called an "information."

For more on federal grand jury procedures, see:

Sample Grand Jury Indictments:

Sample Grand Jury Testimony:

Generally the other court procedures and the types of documents filed in federal criminal cases are similar to those in state cases.

One significant exception is that the transcript of a federal grand jury proceeding is not made public after an indictment is issued, in contrast to transcripts of superior court grand jury proceedings in California that are made part of the public court record after an indictment (although a federal judge can order that a transcript be made public).

Appeals Courts

There are various state and federal appellate courts for criminal cases that were appealed from state superior courts or U.S. District Courts.

For cases involving state crimes, the appeals court in Northern California is the California First Appellate District.

For federal criminal cases, the appeals court in Northern California is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Cases involving state law can be appealed up to the California Supreme Court.

Federal cases, or state cases that raise federal constitutional issues, can be appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Each appeals court has an alphabetical index of the parties involved in the appeal, including the defendant if he/she made the appeal.

The records kept at appeals courts will include the appeal filed by either the prosecutor or the defense attorney, any motions filed by either side with the appeals court and the final decision by the appeals court.

The transcript of arguments made in person before the appeals court by attorneys in the case may not be available in the public record. Instead you'll have to pay the court reporter to provide you a copy or ask either the prosecutor or the defense attorney if you can review their copies.

Appeals generally concern conflicting interpretations of the law as it was applied in the original court case and claims of a  "legal error" by the judge, rather than the particular facts of a case.

Appeals may be filed while a case is still in a lower court, such as when there's a dispute over a judge's ruling. Or they may be filed after a person has been convicted and sentenced, in an attempt to overturn the conviction.

The court file for the original case back in superior court or U.S. District Court that produced the appeal also will include a notation that an appeal was filed. And it will include a subsequent memo indicating the result of the appeal (although often not a copy of the appellate court ruling itself).

Files in a Judge's Chambers

At precisely the moment that reporters most need access to criminal or civil court records, they'll probably discover that the records are not in the court clerk's office.

That's because a few days before a hearing in a criminal or civil case, the public case file is usually sent to the judge who is hearing the case. The file then likely won't be returned to the court clerk's office until the day after the hearing.

So when a criminal or civil court file clerk tells you a case file is in a judge's chambers (in superior court they'll often refer to the "department" that represents the judge's courtroom), you'll need to go to the judge's office to see if you can look at the file.

Politely ask the judge's clerk if you can view the file in the judge's office. If the judge is in court, don't try to interrupt a court proceeding - wait until there's a recess.

Sometimes the clerk will allow you to view the file, sometimes not, depending on whether the judge needs access to the file. The requirements of court procedures trump the right of the public to view the files, so you have no recourse here other than just asking.

If the judge's clerk won't let you access the file, try contacting the district attorney or defense attorney handling the case to see if they'll let you review their copies of records filed in the court case.

But the best advice is to plan ahead and try to look at the court documents when they're available well in advance of a court hearing.

Copying Records

While access to court records is free, there are no limits on what courts can charge for making copies of the records. State laws like the California Public Records Act that regulate copying charges by public agencies do not apply to the courts.

So be prepared to pay 50 cents, 75 cents, $1 or even more per page.

Some courts have self-service photocopy machines. So be sure to bring lots of change when you go to a court to look at records.

And don't ever remove files from the clerk's office.

Criminal Court Records Online

Very few criminal court records are available online, and even indexes to criminal cases are rarely available online.

An example of one criminal index that is online is Sacramento County Superior Court.

This index is searchable by name of defendant and goes back to 1989. It lists the criminal case number, date of filing, the penal code notations for charges filed against the defendant, a history of hearings in the case, and any aka's the defendant has. The actual records in the case are not online, however.

Some courts put their calendars or dockets of pending criminal cases online.

You'll have to check the website for each court to see what's been made publicly available.

In most cases, you'll probably have to go to the courthouse to check the index and view the court files.

San Francisco Bay Area Criminal Court Records Online

Only a few superior courts in the San Francisco Bay Area put indexes to criminal court records online.

Alameda County

Alameda County Superior Court has a Find Your Court Date database of docket information on current criminal and civil cases.

It is searchable by the name of a defendant. Go to:

Alameda County Find Your Court Date

The database provides information on up to the next five days of court hearings (be sure to check the circle next to Today plus the next four court dates to search the calendar for more than just one day).

Your search results will include the date and time of a hearing, the "department" or courtroom in which the hearing will be held and the criminal case file number.

The actual documents filed in the criminal case are not available online. For those, you'll have to go to the court in person.

To see how the Alameda County Find Your Court Date database works and what's available, try a search for just a common last name, such as Smith (and be sure to check the Today plus the next four court dates button).

San Mateo County

San Mateo County Superior Court has an online database of both criminal and civil court filings.

It is searchable by the name of a person. Go to:

San Mateo County Superior Court Records Index

Listings will include the date the case was filed and the case number.

Federal Criminal Court Records Online

Very little information is available for free on criminal cases at U.S. District Court websites.

Instead the federal courts use a proprietary electronic filing system called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) for civil and criminal cases. That system was designed mainly for attorneys, and you have to set up an account and pay a fee when you access documents via PACER.

For information on PACER, go to the PACER Service Center website.

Also see Jonathan Dube's Web Tips column about PACER at the Poynter Institute website.

U.S. District Court for Northern California

The U.S. District Court for Northern California in San Francisco has calendars of current cases for its judges online at its website. Go to:

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California

But you can't search the calendars by the name of a defendant. And the judges listed handle both civil and criminal cases.

So unless you know which judge is handling a particular case, it's extremely difficult to use the online calendars to track down a case.

Indexes of past criminal cases are not available at the U.S. District Court website. The actual court records also are not available at the court website. For those, you'll need to use PACER as described above.

Appeals Court Records Online

Appeals courts, both state and federal, frequently put their decisions online in both criminal and civil cases.

Check the website for an appellate court to see what's available.

State Appeals Court for Northern California

For state criminal cases in northern California that have been appealed, go to:

California First Appellate District

There you'll find a searchable database to locate information on a case, including searching by the name of the person appealing a case. Both criminal and civil appeals cases are listed.

Federal Appeals Court for Northern California

For federal criminal cases in Northern California that have been appealed, go to:

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

This site has the court's decisions available online, listed by date.

There's also a search engine at that page you can use to search by the last name of a defendant to try to locate a decision in a case appealed by that defendant. Enter the last name of the defendant in the by Case Title box.

Sex Offender Records Online

Records are available online about people convicted of sexual offenses who are released from custody, usually on parole.

This is the result of so-called "Megan's laws" adopted in states across the country so the public can know about sex offenders living in their communities.

State Sex Offender Databases

The U.S. Department of Justice operates a website you can search to locate convicted sex offenders in all 50 states. Go to the:

National Sex Offender Public Website

The information on an offender usually includes a photograph and physical description, aliases they have used, their current address, offenses they were convicted of and their past criminal history.

California Sex Offender Database

The California Attorney General's Office has an online database of registered sex offenders:

Megan's Law Website

You can search by the name of an offender or by a city, county, zip code, school, park or specific address.

Information available on sex offenders includes their last know address, what they were convicted of, their photograph and physical description, their date of birth and any aliases they have used.

About this Tutorial

This tutorial was originally written by Paul Grabowicz for students in his Computer Assisted Reporting class, and later modified for public use.

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