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Can I Get a Copy of My File from the Court and If So, How?

Our office is often asked this question and our answer invariably begins with, “well, just go to the clerk’s office and ask to have it copied.  You may just get what you ask for.”  

The question, however, deserves a more thorough and respectful answer that the glib retort above.  California Rules of Court 2.550(c) states that court records are presumptively open for public access.  Public policy favors a right of public access to court documents. 
In a Nutshell: To get a copy of a court file, it may not be as easy and straightforward as just going to the clerks’ office and requesting it at any time.  There are certain limitations on the court’s ability to just make photocopies for a fee and hand it over.  The following article details such limitations.
Nonetheless, one should appreciate that numerous situations exist in which the parties, their attorneys and the judges have an interest in either delaying the opening of filings to public scrutiny, or even denying such access until appellate proceedings are concluded.  California decisions have agreed that judges have an “inherent an implied power to control judicial proceedings in order to insure the orderly administration of justice.”  A natural consequence of this power is the ability to issue protective and sealing orders in appropriate cases upon sufficient showing.”  Rosato v. Superior Court (1975) 51 Cal.App.3d 190, 2016, 124 Cal.Rptr. 427.

For example, in a child molestation case, it would be proper for the court to withhold the identity of the juvenile victim(s) and, during trial, the names of witnesses on the parties’ witness lists.

Penal Code § 987.9, as a further example, allows the defendant in a capital case to make a confidential application for certain funding.  The contents of the application shall be confidential under Penal Code § 987.9(a).  

Torrance CourthouseTorrance Courthouse

Similarly, material from the personnel files of police officers or custodial officers may be sealed from public viewing.  Evidence Code §§ 1043 -1047.  Likewise, Penal Code § 1054.7 allows a court to shield certain information from publication when there are threats or possible danger to a victim or witness, possible loss or destruction of evidence or possible compromise of other investigations by law enforcements (i.e. wiretap and confidential informant affidavits).

We then ask the caller if they literally want every scrap of paper in the court file, i.e. plea agreements, pretrial release information (bail documents), the minutes, written motions, orders, probation officer reports and, of course, the complaint and information if it was a felony case.
The caller usually states “I want everything.”  We then caution them that physical evidence is usually kept separate, in a different area, and that search warrants related to the case are usually kept in a search warrant file in the clerk’s office.

If the case went to trial, the court file may include lists of jurors called to the jury box and juror questionnaires.  It is common for judges to mark such information as confidential and that personal identifying information be kept confidential, too.  Thus, post-trial disclosure of names and addresses to a defendant may be limited to a strict showing of need.  People v. Rhodes (1989) 212 Cal.App.2d 541, 261 Cal.Rptr. 1.

If the matter is a federal case, federal courts are more protective of the information within, especially as to juror questionnaire responses, plea agreements (see Washington Post v. Robinson (DC Cir. 1991) 935 F.2d 282), pretrial release information (see Seattle Times Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court (9th Cir. 1988) 845 F.2d 1513) and search warrant documents, including the affidavits associated therewith (see Times Mirror Co U.S. (9th Cir. 1989) 873 F.2d 1210, 1214, 1218).  

If one does proceed to the courthouse with money ready for copying fees, we caution the individual that court copying fees can be as much as $1.00 per page, making it prudent to know exactly what one needs and what one may not be able to photocopy due to the limitations of public access described above.

For more information about public records issues, please click on the following articles:
  1. Fingerprint Records Must Be Destroyed If the Court Grants a Petition for Factual Innocence (Penal Code § 851.8)
  2. What Can I Do About My Criminal Record on the Internet When the Court Dismissed My Case?
  3. If My Juvenile Record of a Felony Is Reduced to a Misdemeanor, Does This Mean It Is Eligible for Sealing and Destruction?
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