Searching for details in unsolved cases sometimes takes weird turns. Turning to source documents is by far the best place to search for info—but let’s face it, that can be difficult and confusing where to start. Ally Jarmanning, senior reporter with WBUR focused on criminal justice and police accountability, compiled a great document for searching for public records at the state level. 

While her focus is investigative journalism, this resource was created for Muckrock, as a great primer on getting access to court documents state-by-state. Please visit this link to view the real-time document.

Nationwide Databases to Aid in Your Search 

  • judyrecords – Launched in August 2020, judyrecords is a free search engine that lets you instantly search millions of United States federal and state court cases.
  • Fastcase Docket Alarm – Several free searches granted. Free case search with pay-as-you-go account, which doesn’t require use of pay features. 26 million+ federal cases. 91 million+ state cases. 19 million+ specialized agency cases (patent, trademark, tax, international trade, etc.). Combined with case documents, 380 million+ searchable records.
  • UniCourt – Several free searches granted. Premium access upsell. 10 million+ federal cases. 82 million+ state cases.
  • PACER – Fee-based, unless usage is less than $30 within a quarter or you are an exempted group or individual. 56 million+ federal court cases, including bankruptcy, criminal, civil, and appellate. PACER is the official case management system of the United States federal judiciary, run by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). Fees are charged for almost every kind of request for case info, including each search result page viewed, and even when a search returns no results.
  • Free Law Project – RECAP Archive – Huge collection of free federal case files, uploaded by the community, especially through “recap.” You can search on FOIA or other subjects, name, agency, location, judge, etc. They also have recordings of oral arguments at federal appeals courts, and most state supreme court opinions, and can send you alerts about new documents filed in a case or a type of case. If you download federal court documents from PACER (150 pages free each quarter, otherwise 10 cents/page), this add-on for Chrome and Firefox saves a copy and uploads it to CourtListener for everyone else to use free. Currently, only works for individual documents, not for zip files, so download one document at a time from PACER)
  • PlainSite – Federal and certain state court cases with profiles for legal entities, attorneys, judges, law firms, etc. Also, patent and trademark assignments. Everything on the site already (11 million+ dockets, many with documents) is free; analytics, alerts by docket/entity, and document requests cost money.
  • Free Law Project – CourtListener – Free. 4 million+ federal and state court opinions. 70k+ oral arguments. 38k+ hours of oral argument audio. Primarily focused on federal courts, state courts of last resort, and state appellate courts. CourtListener features advanced search capability, alerts for new opinions matching any search criteria, and ranking of search results that take into account the authority of opinions based on citation and precedence factors. Individual opinion pages are richly cross-referenced to related case law. (also see RECAP, another Free Law project)
  • Google Scholar Case Law – Free. Google doesn’t provide the exact number of court cases. Being focused on federal courts, state courts of last resort and state appellate courts, Google’s case law database is highly likely to be roughly the same size as CourtListener’s case law database of 4-5 million cases. Google’s Case Law search is extremely fast to search and navigate, has a very clean user interface, supports Google’s standard query operators, and allows the creation of alerts for new results that match a given search.
  • Caselaw Access Project – Free. 1.7 million+ federal cases. 4.9 million+ state cases.
    CAP includes all official, book-published United States case law — every volume designated as an official report of decisions by a court within the United States. Cases years range from 1658 to 2018.
  • Court Reference – Nationwide directory of court systems throughout the United States.
  • Public Record Retrieval Network (PRRN) – For courts without online access, here’s a great resource to find runners to retrieve records (esp. helpful if you are out of state
  • Ravel for published state and federal cases.
  • BRB’s Free Public Record Search Directory Key public record sources for legal and investigative professionals
  • National Center for State Courts – Links for most states Appellate e-filing, oral arguments, and opinions

This resource is an ongoing document that can be accessed here to see more information related to specific state help. And don’t forget to check out MuckRock for more tools and guidance for accessing public records.

>> Pro-tip: If you need help access public records, your local chapter of the National Freedom of Information Coalition can help. Find yours today!