Are North Carolina Court Records Public?
Public records are documents or information gathered by government agencies while carrying out their official duties, which members of the public have the right to access and review. North Carolina court records are examples of such documents. The North Carolina Public Records Law permits the general public to access public records of government agencies. These records may be in the form of paper, digital, or electronic materials.
North Carolina’s public record law describes public records as people's property. It maintains that interested persons may obtain copies of their public records free or at minimal costs unless otherwise stated by the law. The General Statutes 7A-109(a) reiterates that records maintained by the clerk of the court under the Administrative Office of the Courts rules are public. The public record law, however, exempts some court documents from public disclosure. It exempts arrest and search warrants, criminal summons, and indictments that have been sealed by court order per GS 132-1.4(k). Similarly, GS 132-1.3(a) exempts settlement documents in cases involving medical malpractice actions against public hospital facilities from public disclosure. No case law in North Carolina exempts the judicial department from the North Carolina Public Record Law.
How Do I Find Court Records in North Carolina?
The first step to take when trying to obtain court records in North Carolina is to identify the court records of interest. Afterward, the requestor should gather sufficient information that will facilitate the search. The county offices of clerks of courts in North Carolina operate public, self-service terminals where interested persons can find North Carolina court records. These self-service terminals are otherwise known as the Civil Case Processing System (VCAP). Requesters can obtain information on court documents about some proceedings, estates, and civil cases at these terminals in two ways. These include party name searches and file number searches. Most recorded information concerns case parties and dates for documents prepared by the court or filed with the clerk.
Party Name Search
Interested persons can use party name search to find information on court records at the public, self-service terminals when the file numbers are not known. They can use all or parts of the party’s names to execute the search. Party names follow a preset arrangement to provide consistent results from information retrieval. The best way to conduct name searches is to type the last name, a comma, and then the first initial. For instance, execute a search with Tom,S if the party name is as below:
Last Name: Tom
First Name: Stone
Middle Name: Gabriel
Requesters can also search using full names separated by commas with no space between names such as: last name,first name,middle name (as in Tom,Stone,Gabriel). To obtain information on a company's court record, an interested person should enter the full company's name without punctuations. The terminal allows an individual to conduct party name searches within a specific county, a combination of five counties, and statewide.
File Number Search
Finding court records by file number is simple and is the most efficient search method. However, requesters cannot conduct statewide or multiple county searches using file numbers. They must search for a single county at a time. North Carolina file numbers typically contain a two-digit calendar year, court type, and a sequential number. For instance, a file number can read as 19 CVS 731267.
Note that using the VCPA requires public users to log in with user IDs and their passwords. Requesters who have difficulty accessing the terminals should contact the Help Desk at (919) 890-2407 for support.
Persons who are interested in obtaining North Carolina Court records may also go right to the sources. They can make in-person requests at the courthouses with the custody of the records of interest. Such persons must, however, know what they seek before appearing at the courthouse. Sometimes, record search at courthouses may be time-consuming and extremely slow. Requesters should contact the offices of the clerks ahead before heading to the courthouses. They must be willing to pay some nominal fees for search and copying as may be required. It is also possible to request copies of audio recordings of proceedings from the offices of the clerks. For a confidential case such as juvenile cases, submit the Form AOC-G-115 to the office of the clerk in the county. If the proceeding is not confidential, interested persons can make their requests using Form AOC-G-114.
Considered open to citizens of the United States, public records are available through both traditional, government sources, and through third-party websites and organizations. In many cases, third-party websites make the search easier as they are not limited geographically or by technological limitations. They are considered a good place to start when looking for a specific record or multiple records. In order to gain access to these records, interested parties must typically provide:
- The name of the person listed in the record. Juveniles are typically exempt from this search method.
- The last known or assumed location of the person listed in the record. This includes cities, counties, and states.
While third-party sites offer such services, they are not government sponsored entities, and record availability may vary on these sites when compared to government sources.
How Do North Carolina Courts Work?
The court system in North Carolina is the judicial branch of the state. Also called the General Court of Justice, the court system is instituted with equal status as the Executive and Legislative arms of the government. It has the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution and protecting the rights of North Carolinians. North Carolina runs a centralized statewide and state-operated court system, implying that state courts handle the bulk of court work in the state. The General Court of Justice has three divisions. These are the Appellate Division, the Superior Court Division, and the District Court Division.
The Appellate Division consists of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. Both courts are situated in downtown Raleigh, and each has a clerk who serves as the court's administrative officer. The Supreme Court is North Carolina's highest court with seven justices, who usually serve for eight years in office. Rather than determine facts, this court considers questions of law in making decisions. One of the seven justices serves as the Chief Justice.
The Supreme Court of North Carolina hears appealed cases by parties dissatisfied with North Carolina lower courts, Court of Appeals inclusive. In its discretion, the Supreme Court may review Court of Appeals decisions in cases of significant public interest. Most cases appealed from the lower courts go to and end at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The major exception is capital murder appeals, where the death penalty was applied. Such an appeal is beyond the Court of Appeals and goes directly to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. It is an appellate court whose judges sit in panels of three to review cases from the lower courts. The North Carolina Court of Appeals has 15 judges whose terms in office are eight years. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court appoints one of these 15 to act as the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. Parties in cases involving constitutional questions and proceedings in which there has been disagreement in the Court of Appeals have the right to appeal to the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals determines if there were prejudicial errors while hearing cases at the trial courts.
The Superior Court Division is a trial court division and consists of the North Carolina Superior Court. The Superior Court determines the facts of cases and has original jurisdiction on all felony cases and civil cases involving $25,000 or more. It also handles appeals from District Courts. The Superior Court has 109 Judges who are rotated among the 48 districts every six months to prevent conflict of interest. A judge decides a civil case without a jury unless one of the parties to such a case requests one. However, the North Carolina Constitution provides that a jury of 12 citizens agrees and makes decisions for defendants who plead not guilty to criminal charges.
The North Carolina District Court is also a trial court like the Superior Court. It hears cases concerning civil, juvenile, criminal, and magistrate matters. There are 256 judges of the District Court, all distributed across counties in North Carolina. They typically handle cases involving less than $25,000 claims.
What are Civil Court and Small Claims in North Carolina?
North Carolina small claims courts are a division of the District Court that handles civil cases involving $10,000 or less. The primary focus of the court is on property recovery and lawsuits seeking monetary rewards. In most small claims cases, plaintiffs and defendants do not require legal representation. Parties in small claims cases file lawsuits and defend themselves. However, corporate entities who wish to file lawsuits at the Small Claims Court require the service of lawyers. A Magistrate Judge is responsible for handling all disputes in Small Claims Court. Persons who are at least 18 years old may bring in claims in this court. An independent minor may also file small claims. Typically, small claims hearing holds within 30 to 60 days of serving a complaint. The following are some of the cases heard by North Carolina Small Claims Courts:
- Cases where the plaintiffs seek an amount of money not exceeding $10,000
- Disputes where plaintiffs seek to recover personal properties whose fair market values are not more than $10,000
- Eviction cases as in the matter with landlords and tenants
The process of filing a small claims case takes place at the clerk of the Superior Court's office. The filing fee is $96. Small claims cases must be filed in the county where at least one of the defendants resides, and plaintiffs are responsible for serving defendants with copies of summons. Persons who intend to file small claims cases can use the following forms:
- Money owed complaint form to claim a monetary reward
- Property recovery form to recover personal property
- Summary ejectment form to file a complaint on eviction
What are Appeals and Court Limits in North Carolina?
An appeal in North Carolina is a process that allows a party who lost a legal case in a trial or lower court's decision to seek a review at a higher court. Trial courts may misunderstand the facts of cases based on testimonies or evidence presented and may lead to appeals. There are various reasons for which North Carolina residents file appeals. Ideally, any ruling by a trial court should be supported by the findings of fact. Parties in a legal dispute may have strong reasons to file an appeal if the Trial Court decision is based on a factual matter that was not backed by testimony or evidence. It is customary for judges to permit some testimony or not and either admit or deny specific evidence during a trial. Trial Court judges may commit errors on the admissibility of testimony and evidence and may affect their rulings. There are also instances where Trial Court judges may not have the right understanding of North Carolina statutes and then make decisions based on a wrong application of the law. Appellants must, however, file their appeals on compelling grounds.
The majority of appealed cases in North Carolina are heard at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. However, the Supreme Court of North Carolina reviews certain types of appeals. Cases appealed at the Court of Appeals are not retried. The judges only examine the errors being challenged and then make their rulings. A party who files a notice of appeal with the Trial Court must also serve the notice on the other party in the case. Such cases are then transferred to the Court of Appeals. After a case review by Court of Appeals judges, they may either reverse the earlier decision of the Trial Court or order a new trial if they observe an error in judgment.
What Are North Carolina Judgment Records?
North Carolina judgment records describe the outcome of a criminal or civil case following a trial or court's review of the case facts. The North Carolina Public Records Law makes this document open to residents and interested members of the public. The primary requirements to obtain judgment records in North Carolina are for requesters to possess the necessary case identifying details and pay the associated fees.
Requesters may then visit the clerk's office and submit a request for the court record, specifying the judgment record as the document of interest. Upon retrieving the record, the requester may obtain a regular copy or certified copy of the judgment record, depending on the document's intended use. Another way to obtain judgment records is to use self-service terminals at the courthouse to search for cases and obtain copies of case files. The system will return available court records, and the searcher may print the documents of interest.
North Carolina judgment records contain various information, depending on the nature of the case. Generally, a typical judgment record contains the litigants' names, the judge's name, and the judgment date. More importantly, the document will describe the charges or civil dispute and the court's decision following a trial or examination of the case facts.
What are North Carolina Bankruptcy Records?
North Carolina Bankruptcy Records are publicly accessible financial records of individuals, businesses, and organizations that have filed for bankruptcy. In North Carolina, bankruptcy documents are not sealed; all records are deemed public. Individuals or businesses may file for bankruptcy in the following United States Federal Courts in North Carolina: the Western, Eastern, and Middle Districts of North Carolina Bankruptcy Courts. Members of the public may obtain certified document copies from the Clerk’s Office but must pay a copying and processing charge in advance. Additionally, interested parties can register for electronic access to case information via the PACER Service, enabling them to print documents independently.
Under state law, interested members of the public may access bankruptcy records and related recordings such as North Carolina liens, writs, and judgments. However, requestors may be required to satisfy specific eligibility requirements to obtain or view these records and provide relevant information to facilitate the record search.
How Do I Find My Case Number in North Carolina?
A case number is an identification number assigned to a legal proceeding once filed in court. It helps to distinguish a case from others and has some unique features. A case number typically reveals the filing judicial officer's identity, the year it was filed, and the office that registered it. Individuals who wish to find their case numbers in North Carolina must do so by visiting the office of the clerk of the Superior Court in the county where such cases were filed. Information such as the names of parties involved in the case, case type, filing judicial officer, filing date start, and filing date end will help facilitate a quick search. However, a nominal search fee may apply, and interested persons must be willing to pay.
Can You Look Up Court Cases in North Carolina?
Yes. Anyone interested in looking up court cases in North Carolina can do so at the public, self-service terminals available at the clerk of court's office in any county. The best way to look up cases using these terminals is to search by the case number of interest. Other search options include names of parties involved in the case or witness names. Persons interested in obtaining paper files of cases may do so by visiting the clerk of court's office in the county where such cases were filed. Note that fees may apply. Alternatively, the North Carolina Courts online payment portal provides a means of looking up court cases. An Interested individual should select the county where the case was registered, input the file number in the File Number field, and then click Look Up File for access.
Does North Carolina Hold Remote Trials?
The North Carolina Court system, just like any other in the United States, have been impacted by the outbreak of coronavirus. North Carolina, however, responded by holding remote trials via WebEx teleconferencing application to keep court employees and residents safe amid the pandemic. Residents can file cases by mail, and many court processes have been taken out of the courtroom. Filed lawsuits are also being heard remotely using audio and video conferencing. Local rules, rules of criminal and civil procedure, and all applicable laws apply in remote trials. The court determines which proceedings to convene remotely and the rules guiding those trials.
Persons interested in participating in remote hearings in North Carolina will need computers (with camera) or smartphones installed with the WebEx meeting application and reliable internet connections. Typically, the court will notify participants via email invitations containing the meeting (trial) details. In remote hearings, the involved parties must send all exhibits to the court via email not less than 48 hours before such proceedings. The court admits witnesses to hearings when it is time for them to testify. They must take their leave from such meetings after completing their testimony unless the court allows them to remain there.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Resident Superior Court Judges must design strategies for resuming jury trials in their districts, which must be approved by notable public officials. The plans must include:
- A plan for conducting hearings with social distancing at court locations for all involved
- A plan to ensure the availability of face coverings to court staff, jurors, and other participants
- A daily screening plan of all participants for COVID-19 infection
- A proof that court facility or proposed alternate location (large halls or auditoriums) complies with the Chief justice's directive in response to COVID-19 outbreak
- A detailed plan for social distancing in executing voir dire
What is the Supreme Court of North Carolina?
The Supreme Court of North Carolina is the state's apex court and the highest appellate court. The decision of the Supreme Court on matters of state laws is final. Rather than determining facts in making decisions, supreme court judges review appeals by looking out for errors that occurred in trial courts. The Supreme Court of North Carolina has a Chief Justice and six other associates, and each of them serves for eight years in office. Appeals to the Supreme Court from the Court of Appeals are by rights in cases involving constitutional issues and those where there has been dissent in the Court of Appeals.
North Carolina Court of Appeals?
The North Carolina Court of Appeals has 15 judges. One of them is appointed by the Supreme Court Chief Justice to serve as the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. The court is an intermediate appellate court, and it reduces the amount of work that will ordinarily be handled by the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals has a clerk who doubles as the court's administrative officer. Most appeals from the lower courts go directly to the Court of Appeals, where they are reviewed by a panel of three judges. The decisions made by judges at this court are based on errors of law or legal procedure. The Court of Appeals does not admit new evidence or testimony during an appeal.
North Carolina Superior Court?
Established in 1777, the North Carolina Superior Court is a court with general trial jurisdiction. The court hears civil and criminal cases above $25,000. There are 109 judges of the North Carolina Superior Court spread across the five judicial divisions and 48 districts in the state. The Superior Court judges usually work on a rotational basis. Having a permanent judge in a location often leads to conflicts of interest and compromise. In a North Carolina Superior court, a jury of 12 citizens renders the verdict for defendants who plead not guilty to criminal charges. The Business Court of the superior court division handles cases involving complex issues of corporate and commercial law.
North Carolina District Court?
The North Carolina District Court has 256 judges distributed among the 41 districts across the state. District courts are mostly situated in the county seat of each county in North Carolina. Cases heard by the District Court are those with claims of $25,000 or less. The court hears civil, non-injury misdemeanors, and juvenile cases. Civil cases tried in this court include child support, divorce, and child custody. Criminal cases appealed from the District Court go to the Superior Court for trial de novo, while civil and juvenile cases move to the Court of Appeals. The Magistrates are under the supervisory authority of the Chief District Court Judge. They try small claims cases under $10,000 and a few matters in criminal cases.