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How Do I Do a Defendant Search?

Some counties upload public records and post online the names of people who are detained in their correctional facilities at any given time.
A sheriff's office can verify if a defendant is currently spending time in jail.
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  • Written By: Pablo Garcia
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2014
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A defendant search can be accomplished in several ways. Court cases in the United States are public record, and you can check court records in person and, often, online. Local sheriff’s offices have information about defendants in their custody. There also are additional online and offline search resources if obtaining court records yourself is for some reason not feasible.

Generally, court cases in the U.S. are considered public records. This is true of both criminal and civil cases. Some exceptions include records on juvenile cases and family cases involving adoption or abuse or neglect of a child. These records can only be accessed by an officer of the court, a party to the case, or the attorneys involved.

Court records in the U.S. are kept by the county in which the action was filed. You can do a defendant search by making an inquiry at the clerk of the circuit court’s office. It will be useful to know the defendant’s full legal name and any information you have about the type of case it is. If it is a criminal case, the plaintiff will always be "the State". The criminal file will also contain information about whether the defendant is in custody and, if so, the amount needed for bond.

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If there is no file for a criminal defendant in the circuit clerk’s office, you can check with the county sheriff to see if the defendant is being held in local custody. With a very recent arrest, a defendant search of the hard copy of the court file may not yet be possible in the clerk’s office. The sheriff’s office can verify whether the defendant is listed on the current jail roster. You should also be able to find out the defendant’s court appearance date.

Most jurisdictions now have online access to basic court documents, which would assist you in a defendant search. Although you may not be able to access certain court papers, most systems will allow you to view the “docket sheet.” This contains the names of the parties and the nature of the case. It will also list a history of all papers filed by the parties and any orders entered so far by the court. The last docket entry will usually have the next court date and what type of hearing is scheduled.

Many newspapers carry their own sections on local criminal cases, with information on charges, guilty pleas, verdicts, and sentences received by various defendants. They will sometimes indicate the name of the judge handling the case. Using “finding a defendant” or similar terms in an online search can also help locate resources. This might be most useful if you are searching for a defendant but are unsure of the jurisdiction in which you need to look. There may be a fee for using this type of resource for your search.

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