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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.
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.
The other instance in which criminal court records often are not open to the public is when the person charged is a juvenile. This guide describes for reporters what court documents are available in California criminal cases, and also provides a summary of federal courts. Each criminal court has an alphabetical name index a reporter can use to find criminal cases filed against people in that court. 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.
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). 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
After a person has been charged with a felony they will be arraigned before a superior court judge. 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. 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). Whatever the outcome, a transcript of the preliminary hearing will be filed in the court case.
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 can occur at any point in the criminal court proceeding, including after a formal trial has begun. 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).
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 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.
The first jury trial determines the person’s guilt or innocence, and is very similar to trials involving other criminal charges.
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 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. 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. 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. For people under the age of 18 charged with crimes, a separate juvenile court system exists in each county in California.
Criminal court cases against juveniles charged with certain violent or very severe crimes are open to the public in California.
Juveniles charged with very serious crimes may be charged as adults in superior court in California, in which case the court proceedings and court records are open as they are in other felony cases.
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.
These criminal cases are investigated by federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, etc.
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. 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).
There are various state and federal appellate courts for criminal cases that were appealed from state superior courts or U.S. 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.
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. 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. 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.
While access to court records is free, there are no limits on what courts can charge for making copies of the records. Very few criminal court records are available online, and even indexes to criminal cases are rarely available online. In most cases, you’ll probably have to go to the courthouse to check the index and view the court files.
Only a few superior courts in the San Francisco Bay Area put indexes to criminal court records online.

Alameda County Superior Court has a Find Your Court Date database of docket information on current criminal and civil cases. 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). 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 Superior Court has an online database of both criminal and civil court filings. Instead the federal courts use a proprietary electronic filing system called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) for civil and criminal cases. Appeals courts, both state and federal, frequently put their decisions online in both criminal and civil cases.
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. You can search by the name of an offender or by a city, county, zip code, school, park or specific address.
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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. 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. 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. 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. 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). 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.
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. This is one of the only places where you can find a public record of a person’s criminal history. This details the sentence the defendant received – county jail time, state prison time, suspended sentence, probation, etc. District Courts in California, each of which covers a particular geographic area of the state.
District Court for the Northern District of California covers counties along the north coast of the state, including the San Francisco Bay Area. 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. 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. District Court that produced the appeal also will include a notation that an appeal was filed. 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.
State laws like the California Public Records Act that regulate copying charges by public agencies do not apply to the courts. 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. 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. District Court for Northern California in San Francisco has calendars of current cases for its judges online at its website.
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. And it will include a subsequent memo indicating the result of the appeal (although often not a copy of the appellate court ruling itself). District Court for the Northern District of California, which handles cases for the San Francisco Bay Area and counties elsewhere in Northern California.

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