How to search pending lawsuits or court cases prior to completion?
February 13, 2007 8:30 PM   Subscribe

How do you search for court cases or law suits that have not yet been completed?

It has been leaked that a co-workers husband has been brought up on pedophilia charges and that the case is still pending. As a concerned party, I would like to find out if these rumors are true and what status these precedings are at. Being that he has not yet been found guilty (we have heard), Megan's Law websites and lists are of no use. I am not looking for a morals discussion (although I know we will be having one), but rather just a means of execution of the above scenario.

As always, any help is greatly appreciated.
posted by wile e to Law & Government (10 answers total)
If you were actually a concerned party, you would be involved in the case.

You obviously know this is really none of your business, but if you're absolutely determined to press on, have you tried contacting your local court system? I believe different jurisdictions work differently, so your first step would be to find out how the law works in your area. Since you don't identify where you're from, it's not likely that ask.mefi can be of much use.
posted by Malor at 8:38 PM on February 13, 2007

Response by poster: I'm located in Southern NY. North of NYC, south of Albany. I'd prefer to not get too much more specific than that.
posted by wile e at 8:40 PM on February 13, 2007

"WebCrims provides online access to criminal cases with future appearance dates in all criminal courts in New York City and Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the County Courts in the Ninth Judicial District (which includes Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Putnam and Dutchess Counties), the County Court in Erie County, and the Buffalo City Court."

Dunno if that includes you, since you don't specify. More generally, you could poke around the NYCourts website and see if any broader searches are available. If you really must know, contact a local lawyer friend and ask where he/she would get pending criminal case info. It's a state-court issue so there's no general, nation-wide answer to your question.
posted by rkent at 9:04 PM on February 13, 2007

For civil cases, search here. For criminal cases there is no online option. Procedures for finding the info (they apply both to resolved and pending cases) are here. You need the person's full name and DOB, and it costs $52 to search.

(As these are matters of public record, I suppose only you can judge whether your concern is genuine rather than prying or even prurient in nature.)
posted by Urban Hermit at 9:05 PM on February 13, 2007

rkent, WebCrims is only available to members of the New York State Bar.
posted by Urban Hermit at 9:06 PM on February 13, 2007

I've never done a court records search in New York, but I have done it in Virginia, Oregon and Washington, and the procedures have been fairly consistent.

The first thing you should be aware of: there are multiple tiers of court systems across the U.S.

Odds are that the person you're interested in is being charged at the state court level. In the areas I'm familiar with, there's a state court for each county. Some states have all their courts networked and accessible online, others are accessible through courthouses and you may need a clerk's help to look things up, and others you have to actually go to the correct courthouse to find out about charges.

To find out more than just what someone is charged -- the legal terms for crimes are not always very descriptive and often don't fit with our common understanding of the words used -- you will be best off actually going to the courthouse

The criminal court clerk is your friend. S/he controls access to information, and is required to share it. If you're patient and nice, this information tends to be much easier to track down. Depending on the procedures of your jurisdiction, you may be allowed to look through the file directly at the clerk's counter, or you may not be allowed to touch the original documents. If you aren't allowed to touch the documents, you'll probably have to pay a per-page fee to have copies made. Since you're just interested in the details of the charges, you can save some money by just requesting the charging documents. Bring cash in small denominations. Many courthouses won't take checks or credit cards.

Depending on the severity of the charges being brought against this guy, there is a chance that he's being charged in U.S. District Court, of which there is generally one per state. You can register for a paid PACER account, which will give you access to the entire U.S. District Court system. Almost all documents exchanged through this system are available online, and you can get at them for a fairly light fee.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:31 PM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

A couple of additional notes:

Once a person has been charged in criminal court, the above methods will work. If you can't find the person, you may be looking in the wrong courthouse, or it's possible that criminal charges have not been formally pressed yet.

If there's a hearing scheduled near the time of your visit to a court house, it's possible that the file you request will be in the judge's office. You'll need to talk to the clerk and ask what to do to get a look at it. If the hearing is tomorrow or was yesterday, and the charges just aren't filed with the rest of the documents, you may be able to persuade the judge's assistant to look things up.

Also: In every jurisdiction that I'm familiar with, you have NO legal obligation to explain why you're looking up records. Public records are public records, and as a member of the public you have a right to see the records. Public records laws do allow for a delay between your request and the release of the documents you're interested in, however, and sometimes you can be required to officially request the documents in writing.

In nearly every case where I've requested a document in a kind, professional manner, I've had no trouble obtaining it and I have not been required to jump through bureaucratic hoops. Clerks and others may ask you, out of curiosity. If you come across as a loon or someone with a vendetta they may be less inclined to make your search go easily. It might be worth glossing over the motives for your search -- try to come up with something less confrontational/obnoxious than "Under state public records laws, I don't have to tell you," less scary/stalkery than "I'm spying on my co-worker's husband behind her back." Say that you're doing research, maybe?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:38 PM on February 13, 2007

er: "Clerks and others may ask you why you want this document, out of curiosity." You have no legal obligation to tell them.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:39 PM on February 13, 2007

PACER is a robust and wonderful tool but try the newly released (free) Justia Federal District Court Filings & Dockets first.

rkent was correct about Webcrims and you do not have to be a member of the bar to access it.

Also consider simply calling the County Court in question.

Westchester (914) 824-5400

Putnam (845) 225-3641

Dutchess (845) 486-2260

If you are on the other side of the Hudson you are on your own (just kidding feel free to email or post in the thread for additional information).

If you do call one of the above numbers, be clear that you just want to know if there are any trials or proceedings involving the defendant pending.

Once you mention the word "search" the personnel switch into automatic and think you want a manually conducted search of criminal history records.

The information you are seeking is easily obtainable and Westchester or Putnam will not even ask you why you are asking (in my experience). I don't know about Dutchess.
posted by mlis at 11:34 PM on February 13, 2007

In Canada (and it depends on the province for non-federal cases) most often it's a visit to the court house for ongoing info. Unfortunately, there is no official site for hearings that I know of available to the public.

Decisions however can be found easily by looking at the relevant government website (by province) and going to the decisions page (Ontario for example).

Federal and Provincial appeals and Supreme court cases can be previewed, because previous decisions have been rendered.

And of course, there's Quicklaw for those willing to pay a membership.
posted by pezdacanuck at 5:34 AM on February 14, 2007

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