Accessing criminal court records
Q: How do I get access to records that were sealed in a county criminal court file in 1998? The order sealing part of the evidence gives no reason as to why record was sealed. The defendant pled guilty to murder without right of appeal in 2002. The victims’ family would cooperate in getting records unsealed. I have read your “Asked & Answered” section and it seems records would fall under NBC Subsidiary (KNBC-TV) v. Superior Court 20 Cal 4th 1178 (1999). What information do I need to get to knock down likely barriers in process to unseal? And how difficult is this process likely to be?
A: A California court record that has been sealed may only be unsealed by order of the court. Cal. R. Ct. 2.551(h)(1). (Text of entire Rule 2.551: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/rules/index.cfm?title=two&linkid=rule2_551.) “A party or member of the public may move, apply, or petition, or the court on its own motion may move, to unseal a record.” Rule 2.551(h)(2).
In deciding whether or not to unseal a record, the court “must consider the matters addressed in rule 2.550(c)-(e),” which include the requirement that a record may only be sealed if the court makes express findings that establish:
(1) There exists an overriding interest that overcomes the right of public access to the record;
(2) The overriding interest supports sealing the record;
(3) A substantial probability exists that the overriding interest will be prejudiced if the record is not sealed;
(4) The proposed sealing is narrowly tailored; and
(5) No less restrictive means exist to achieve the overriding interest.
Cal. R. Ct. 2.550(d) (emphasis added). (Text of entire Rule 2.550: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/rules/index.cfm?title=two&linkid=rule2_550.) (Note that this requirement echoes the requirements set forth in NBC Subsidiary, which you cited below.)
If the court that sealed the records in 1998 did not support the sealing with any findings as to why it was justified, there may be good grounds for unsealing. From a procedural standpoint, however, unless the court might be persuaded by a phone call to unseal the record on its own motion (which is probably unlikely), the unsealing would require a formal motion, application, or petition asking the court to unseal, which could be difficult to do without an attorney. As for the likelihood of ultimately prevailing in getting the records unsealed, that might depend in large part on the reason they were sealed in the first place. As you note, part of the problem in this situation is that it is not clear why they were sealed and therefore whether the appropriate findings in support of the sealing could have been made. In some situations, the passage of time might undermine whatever justification might originally have existed for unsealing the record.