Pennsylvania Criminal Court Records
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What are Pennsylvania Criminal Court Records?
Pennsylvania criminal court records comprise all records pertaining to criminal court proceedings maintained by the state’s judicial system. This encompasses legal documentation of indictments, affidavit, testimonies, and judgments relating to criminal court cases within the jurisdiction of the state. Court records may not serve as alternative sources of criminal history information, which are usually maintained by law enforcement agencies. The Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System provides public access to criminal court records as digital files or in various physical formats upon request.
The Pennsylvania Criminal Court System
The State of Pennsylvania operates a unified judicial system that includes:
- The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
- Superior Court of Pennsylvania
- Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
- Various Courts Of Common Pleas
- Minor Courts including Magisterial District Courts and Pittsburgh & Philadelphia Municipal Courts
Subsequent to an indictment in Pennsylvania, preliminary criminal hearings are conducted in one of the base-level courts. Cases determined to be trial worthy are heard by the Commonwealth Court or the Courts of Common pleas depending on the severity of the crime. However, the state’s federal district courts have limited judicial authorities, and they hear selected federal crimes within the state. If required, appeals may be made to one of the two appellate courts, one of which is the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. While appeals to the Superior court are generally final, the Supreme court serves as the state’s highest court and the court of last resort. Summarily, the states courts are categorized based on their judicial authorities to hear felonies, misdemeanors or infractions.
What’s Included in a Pennsylvania Criminal Court Record?
The information contained in a Pennsylvania criminal court record depends primarily on the case itself. However, the content may also vary from court to court while sharing the same general characteristics.
As a rule, criminal court records will contain the personal information of the indicted person as well as details of the criminal case, case number and the date and place of the filing. This information will be useful for tracking the records in the office of the clerk of courts where such records are managed. Criminal court records also feature relevant details of the indictment such as the original charge brought against the offender, and information regarding the preliminary hearing.
Records of cases that are tried in court typically include details of the conviction, sentencing hearing, and ascribed jail-time or penalty. Where the defendant pleads guilty and is not tried, any plea bargains, probationary conditions, and fines will be included, and if the initial verdict is appealed, the record will be updated to include the court(s) most recent judgment (s) and/or penalties. Where relevant, the records may include the incarceration information or inmate records of the accused or defendant.
While the most relevant information pertaining to a criminal case is contained in a court case file, documents such as docket sheets, court opinions/postings, and court calendars may be useful for finding related information. They may be used for the following:
Docket sheets may be included in a case file. They often list all relevant documents filed during litigation and may contain details of actions taken during a trial. The UJSP maintains docket sheets of Pennsylvania’s Appellate Courts, Criminal Courts of Common Pleas and Magisterial District Courts.
The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania publishes official opinions and dispositional orders for the states Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth courts. These are usually available from the courts Prothonotary and are summarized conclusions reached on all legal dissensions.
The UJSP maintains a frequently updated schedule of pending criminal court cases for all courts within the jurisdiction of the state. All courts operate independent schedules which are often organized by the court location or argument list.
Are all Pennsylvania Criminal Court Records Public?
In accordance with the public access policy of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania criminal case court records of appellate and trial courts are open to interested members of the public. As per this policy, maintenance of the court records is the responsibility of the concerned court custodian, who is also tasked with facilitating public access to court records deemed non-confidential. Exceptions may be made for records rendered private or closed by a court order. Access to confidential information may be provided to persons with the required legal authority to obtain them. However, this is not applicable to cases that are excluded from public access or sealed.
How to Access Criminal Court Records
As required by Pennsylvania’s public access laws, access to criminal court records requires the requestor to make an oral or written request to the custodian of the record. While the state’s public access policy does not require a custodian to provide remote access to these records, the UJSP provides public access to electronic case records alongside records in paper format. Generally, interested members of the public may view and/or obtain copies of criminal court records by:
- Using the states online resources such as the UJS web portal
- Making in-person requests (recommended for magisterial district courts)
- Sending requests via mail to the concerned custodian
How to Find Pennsylvania Criminal Court Records Online
The UJSP web portal maintains and provides public access to criminal court records of Pennsylvania’s Appellate, Common Pleas and Magisterial District Courts as well as other minor courts. These records are available on the public web docket sheets of the individual courts. The information provided on these sheets excludes any content which is not accessible for public viewings such as secure court and pre-sentence summary reports. All confidential information may be obtained using the secure web docket sheets which may only be accessed using a secure login.
As all Pennsylvania courts have separate public web docket search tool, persons interested in accessing criminal case information must know the court in which the case was filed. Once determined, the requestor may use the applicable tool:
- Appellate Courts Docket Tool,
- Criminal Courts of Common Pleas Docket Tool,
- Magisterial District Courts Docket Tool or
- Philadelphia Municipal Court Docket Tool
To retrieve criminal court records using the Appellate court docket tool, the requesting party will be required to provide the docket number. Otherwise, searches may be conducted by court name and the requestor will be required to provide additional information such as the case type, docket type, party and attorney names and the relevant details of the case such as its date of filing and most current status.
On the other hand, searches involving the Criminal Courts of Common Pleas Docket Tool, Magisterial District Courts Docket Tool or Philadelphia Municipal Court Docket Tool allows the requestor conduct searches using a range of criteria such as the docket number, organization, OTN, SID, parcel, and police incident/complaint number.
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 a 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.
How do I Access Pennsylvania Criminal Court Records in Person?
Given the limits on remote access to criminal court records (as per section 10 of the Pennsylvania public access policy on the UJSP), in-person record requests are best-suited for obtaining thorough information.
- Locate the Record Custodian
Under the Pennsylvania Unified Court System, the states appellate, common pleas, and magisterial district courts hear criminal cases and consequently generate/maintain criminal court records. In order to find a record in-person, the requestor must identify the jurisdiction where the case was filed/heard and locate the courthouse where the case files are housed. The location of a court record may also be impacted by the severity of the crime and the most current status of the case.
- Gather Relevant Information
Following the establishment of the Pennsylvania Public Record Policy, members of the public seeking access to criminal court records are required to provide relevant information regarding the case. This may include details such as the case file number, the names of the parties involved as well as the witness and attorney names. These are especially important for facilitating record searches.
- Make In-Person Requests
Upon verifying the location of the record, requestors may make in-person requests to access them from the appropriate courthouse or Clerk’s office. This may require completing a request form on which the requester must provide details required to facilitate the search. Alternatively, in-person requests may be made at the Pennsylvania Judicial Center.
- Provide Identification & Fee Requirements
All persons seeking to access criminal court records in-person may be required to present a government-issued photo ID as well as pay a standard fee to cover search and copy fees. This is pursuant to 204 Pa. Code § 155, which requires that only court-approved fee schedules are valid (where the court is not the custodian of the record).
How do I Access Pennsylvania Criminal Court Records via Mail?
Most PA courts have specific requirements for obtaining criminal court records via mail. Generally, requestors will be required to send a written request stating the type of document required, the full name of the defendant/plaintiff, the case file number and the date and place where the case was filed.
Mail-in requests typically require that the requestor enclose a cheque or money order payment for the appropriate search and/or copy fee as well as a copy of a government-issued photo-ID, and self-addressed envelope. All requests for paper court records from Magisterial District Courts require that the requestor contact the appropriate magisterial district court office. For especially complex requests, the requesting party must download, complete and submit the Request For Official Records form.
How Do I Find Pennsylvania Court Records for Free?
The UJS web portal provides public access to individual court case information including docket sheets for free. However, following the limits on remote access to case records, only the following information may be accessed on the portal:
- The names of the parties involved
- The address(s) of the aforementioned parties.
- Name and address of counsel on record
- Docket entries (indicating documents filed actions taken in a case)
- Court orders and opinions
The information which specifically identifies jurors and witnesses and transcripts are excluded from the portal and typically require in-person requests to obtain.
Obtaining Court Opinions & Calendars
All court opinions and postings are published on the UJS web portal along with the calendar schedules of the magisterial district courts and the common pleas courts. Interested persons may search for opinions and posting from appellate courts using the Opinions Search Tool. The requestor may filter by court type and other criteria such as posting type, caption, author and date range.
Similarly, the Common Pleas Court Calendar Schedule and the Magisterial District Courts Calendar Schedule can be searched by attorney name, calendar event, docket number, organization, and participant name/SID.
Accessing Sealed Criminal Court Records
Under Pennsylvania state law, court records that have been sealed by court order may not be destroyed but will be unavailable to members of the general public. This is as was provided by 18 Pa. C. S. A. § 9121. To be eligible to access a sealed criminal court record, the requestor must be legally authorized (i.e. have a court order to this effect) or be a criminal justice officer, a staff of the state department of human services (child protective services division) or be a professional licensing agent/board. Persons who do not fit in any of these categories may not access a sealed record.
Criminal Court Records & Criminal History Records
Members of the public are disallowed from using criminal court records as an alternative to a criminal history record. While criminal court records primarily contain information regarding an indictment and the actions and judgments following a litigation process, criminal history records are a compilation of an individual’s criminal activity in their lifetime. These records serve as background checks and may only be provided by the Pennsylvania State Police Department.
- How to Obtain Pennsylvania Criminal History Records
Pennsylvania criminal history information may be obtained using the state’s web-based application dubbed PATCH (Pennsylvania Access To Criminal History) or by submitting a request form to the police department in person or via mail.
Online requests generally require the requestor to submit a New Record Check Request on which the personal information of the subject must be provided. The information required includes the subject’s name, gender, birth date, and current address. Queries relating to the process may be made to the PATCH toll-free line at 1–888-QUERY-PA.
Similarly, the Criminal History Request Form may be used to make in-person or mail requests. This method is especially recommended for obtaining notarized criminal history records. Subsequent to its completion, the form must be mailed to the Pennsylvania State Police Central Repository along with the indicated fees and ID requirements.