Suppose you are job-seeking and worried about a potential employer finding the public court records about an arrest when you were a juvenile for a petty drug offense in internet search results. Or suppose your next business venture will involve some due diligence on your background and you are worried about personal medical records or an unflattering mugshot showing up online.
When it comes to removing a public court record from the internet, the best thing to do is have the court record first sealed or expunged. Only after this is done should you reach out to a website, with the assistance of an experienced attorney, and ask them to remove your court records.
The process of removing public court records from the internet primarily consists of two primary steps:
- Filing a motion with a court to seal or expunge the relevant court records; and
- After a judge grants the motion to seal or expunge the court records, having an attorney contact the website to ask them to take down the court records.
The ease in which you can seal or expunge a court record will depend on several factors, such as:
- The type of public record (a criminal or civil court case);
- The severity of the crime committed;
- The public’s need to access the public court record;
- How long it has been since the court record was created;
- The legal costs in having the public record expunged or sealed.
This blog post will discuss these variables and provide useful information for people with a criminal history and people who are curious about court data works. It will also provide a general overview of how the sealing or expungement process works to remove public court records from the internet.
Lastly, it will provide guidance on how to seek help from an expert to remove court records from the web, particularly when expungement is not automatic and you may need an expert to ask a court to take action to have records removed.
Regulations & Laws That Allow Public Court Records to be Available Online
The United States has a very long history of allowing court proceedings and records to be available for review by the general public. Laws and regulations that allow public records to be published or accessed online have their roots in the:
But there can be exceptions to the above laws and regulations, such as when an individual’s right to privacy outweighs the public’s interest in accessing court information.
Court records found online are usually reposted information on third-party websites. These websites have no relationship with the legal system. Courts and law enforcement agencies will often have court documents available for public review. However, (excepting federal court proceedings) these official records will rarely show up in a Google or search engine query.
Some of these websites include PacerMonitor, Leagle, and PlainSite. Court-records websites work by first searching public records. They then publish any court documents found.
Occasionally, these court-record websites will remove out-of-date information on their own when updating their databases. They may also agree to take records down when they receive a letter with a copy of a court order to remove content showing that the court case or official record has been sealed or expunged.
Certain types of documents are not made public. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will not disclose to the public charges of employment discrimination, charge conciliation information, or raw EEO survey data. Other types of employment litigation records that are not available to the general public include:
- Complaints filed by federal employees.
- Internal documents reflecting the deliberations of agency officials.
- Confidential legal documents, such as attorney-client communications and attorney work-product.
- Information provided to the EEOC by confidential sources.
- Personal information, such as medical history, social security numbers, and contact information.
Benefits of Removing Public Court Records Available Online
A good analogy to understand the benefit of asking a court to seal or expunge a court record is to look at the medical context. Everyone knows that the best way to treat an illness is to address the cause of the illness, not just the symptoms.
Trying to remove court records without sealing or expunging them is like only treating the symptoms of an illness. As long as the underlying cause of the illness exists (the public court record), removing the symptoms (court records showing up on the internet) may require continuous ongoing treatment.
Even when gone, the symptoms can always come back (a buried search result working its way back to the top or a new court record website). Only by removing the cause (sealing or expunging a court record) can you expect the symptoms of the illness to be gone for good (court records no longer showing up in an internet search forever).
Removing public court records from the internet can significantly impact your life and livelihood in three key ways:
- Improve your digital footprint and privacy;
- Improve your chances of securing employment;
- Allow you to relocate.
How Removing Public Court Records Can Affect Your Privacy & Online Reputation
In today’s digital age, what your online reputation says about you is paramount. Most everyone, including potential romantic partners, future employers, and business clients, researches an individual’s digital footprint before engaging them.
When your digital footprint tells a sour story, naturally, someone is less likely to engage you. Or, they may feel compelled (and empowered) to harass you or invade your privacy.
For example, someone may have a compelling interest in keeping his or her court records private once they have been acquitted of a criminal charge, because of the potential discrimination, ostracization, or even threat to their safety the release could cause.
How Removing Public Court Records Can Affect Your Job
Some clients resign or lose their jobs based on an arrest record, court case(s), or other information contained in public records on high ranking websites. Not everything that is listed in, say, a police report detailing an arrest ends up being proven true.
In those cases, if you can beat a criminal charge and have your criminal record expunged or sealed, you can likely get back on track and potentially get your job back or seek out new opportunities with confidence and not worry about prospective employers prying into unsubstantiated allegations.
How Removing Public Court Records Can Affect Your Ability to Relocate
Landlords and lenders run credit checks, and many go one step further by conducting an informal background check. Publicly visible court records can make moving to a new apartment or getting approved for a home loan more difficult by amplifying negative personal information and allegations contained in court records.
Getting rid of that unnecessary online noise helps lenders and landlords give you a fair shot during your next big move.
How to Access Public Court Records on the Internet
An individual can usually access public court records in two ways:
- Online court records system;
- Third-party legal records websites.
First, there is public access through a court system’s official online records system. Every state has its own court rules that dictate how online court records will work. And many states will allow each county or locality to further control how electronic records may be accessed.
This can include what information is available online. For example, one court might only have simple docket entries viewable online. If someone wants to access an actual court document, they will have to do so at the courthouse. In another state or county, every single court document might be converted into electronic form. This will allow anyone to view the document online.
The federal courts also have their own electronic court records system, called PACER. This is open to the public, so an individual can access practically all court documents in a federal case. There is a fee to use PACER, although, for limited searches, the fee can be waived.
Second, there are the third-party legal websites that we discussed earlier. These sites search public records databases, then republish the information on their own websites.
The overall goal of most of these court-records websites is to make public legal information available as easily as possible. For many people, these third-party websites are one of their main sources of legal material.
These sites can vary widely in how they work and what they offer. Some might be completely free, while others might charge a subscription fee. Sometimes this subscription cost can be very high. Two leading examples of this include LexisNexis and Westlaw, the two major research databases in the legal world.
Some websites might focus on court opinions written by judges. Others may have all court documents, including mundane litigation matters like proofs of service and procedural motions. Others might be less-than-flattering mugshot websites with a photo of you from the worst moment of your life.
The average person may not know about the law library at their local courthouse. And even if they did, they would not know where to start looking for information. Then there is the practical challenge of finding time to go down there to physically begin their legal search.
Court-records websites want to provide legal information to the public.
As a result, these court-records websites are reluctant to remove any information from their databases. They might view this as a disservice to their customers and the general public.
This might seem like a hurdle to getting court records removed from the internet. But it is actually an advantage. It allows sealing or expunging a court record to be an effective way to remove public court records from the internet.
These websites view themselves as providers of legal information. This means they want to have the most accurate and up-to-date information possible. When a court record gets sealed or expunged, the third-party website will want to update its database to reflect this change.
Generally speaking, websites do not have a legal requirement to update their records to match the official court records. But a court might decide that an individual or group’s privacy interest outweighs the public’s access to that information. In this situation, court-records websites will often respect the court’s determination.
When to Seek Help From an Expert to Remove Public Records From the Internet
There are serious roadblocks to removing court records from the web. You may want to seek the help of an attorney instead of resorting to self-help, especially if you need to file something with a court. An experienced internet attorney can:
- File motions on your behalf,
- Collect and prepare evidence to bolster your removal request,
- Cite to cases that will help convince a judge that your case should be private, and
- Help convince websites that they should remove the court materials.
Asking to seal or expunge a criminal record is not as easy as filling out of a form that anyone can submit. It will typically only work for minor offenses or offenses committed by a juvenile and involve some argument or approval from the prosecutor’s office. Each state will have its own eligibility rules on how to apply these requirements.
Examples of minor crimes include a public intoxication charge or minor drug offense.
There may also be a limit on the number of convictions that may be sealed or expunged. For instance, in New York, you can seal an eligible criminal conviction, but only if you have no more than two prior misdemeanors or one prior felony.
In civil matters, like a divorce proceeding, an individual will need a compelling reason to convince a court to seal the court records. Embarrassment will rarely be enough to convince a judge to seal a public court record.
Even if both sides agree that certain information should be kept confidential, a judge may still decline the request to seal the court records. However, tailoring the agreement as part of a settlement or contract between the parties may increase the chances of success.
Do Not Wait Too Long to Seal or Expunge Court Records
Waiting too long to ask a court to seal or expunge court documents can also present a hurdle. One of the reasons for asking a court to seal a court record will be because of the harm it may cause.
But if a long time has passed since the court records were public, it will be more difficult to convince a judge that the individual will suffer harm if the court documents remain public.
How to Remove Public Court Records on the Internet
The basic premise for removing public court records from the internet is fairly straightforward. But like many other legal procedures, the devil is in the details. The following two-step process usually works best for removing public court records from a court-records website.
- Filing a motion to seal or expunge court records;
- Having an attorney contact the court records website to request its removal (post-motion to seal or motion to expunge).
Filing a Motion to Seal or Expunge Court Records
The first step involves filing a motion to seal or expunge the court records. Filing a motion will not automatically result in court records getting expunged or sealed as a judge must agree to grant this request.
The exact process for sealing or expunging court records will vary for each state. But most states will follow two overarching themes for two types of cases: criminal and civil.
Removing Public Criminal Records
For criminal cases, most criminal cases for adults that resulted in charges being filed by the local district attorney or prosecuting attorney are available online. Court records for juvenile arrests and offenses are generally not published, and when they are, the names of the offending parties and other sensitive information about juveniles are usually not fully displayed.
Many states recognize that criminal court records and the information they contain might prevent an arrested person from getting a job or finding a place to live. Some states therefore may provide sealing or expungement options to limit access to court records for certain offenses to prevent someone from being unfairly harmed or discriminated against based on a criminal record and the information contained in court records.
This remedy is usually only offered to minor criminal offenses, such as citations and misdemeanors, or when the arrested person is found innocent, is a first-time offender, accepts a plea deal, or agrees to a pretrial diversion program. This rationale does not apply to all criminal charges.
Serious crimes that include violence, sex offenses, child abuse, and other serious felonies are never likely to be sealed because the severity of the offense makes it something that should be kept public.
Once you obtain an expungement or sealing order, or the docket items are removed from the court’s website, you may request court record websites to update their version of the case and omit the information that has been expunged, sealed, or purged.
Removing Public Civil Court Records
In civil cases, courts will also consider sealing or expunging court records in order to balance an individual’s right to privacy with the public’s right to review court records. Common examples of where a court may seal a civil court record include:
- Medical records,
- Settlement agreements, and
- Trade secrets.
For all court records, there is generally a presumption in not sealing the court records. Only if an individual can show that the harm they will face outweighs the public’s right to the information, will a court agree to seal a civil court record.
Even though sealing or expunging a court record is the best way to remove court records from the internet, it is not guaranteed to work in all situations.
Once you obtain a sealing order, or the docket items are removed from the court’s website, you may request that other court records websites update their version of the case and omit the information that has been sealed.
Having an Attorney Contact the Court Records Website to Request Removal
Assuming the judge grants the request, the second step requires having an attorney contact the court-records website. This contact can be in the form of an email with an attached letter.
In that letter, the attorney can call attention to the updated court information.
The letter can also ask that the offending information be removed for privacy reasons.
Finally, the letter can remind the website that removing the information would allow them to have their records accurately reflect the publicly available court information.
This process can also be used with search engines to de-index court records from internet search results.
How to Improve Your Chances of Having a Court Record Expunged or Sealed
To increase your chances of success of having a court grant the sealing or expungement request, you can ask to limit the removal request. So, instead of asking for the entire case record to be sealed, the petitioner can just ask for certain documents and sections to be sealed.
An employment case involving disability discrimination can be a good example of this. Here, the petitioner can ask the court to seal any court document that contains the petitioner’s medical records.
Having some evidentiary proof of being harmed can go a long way. For example, a statement made under oath articulating the many ways that a particular court proceeding has impacted you may help convince a judge to rule in your favor.
If you are the subject of outdated or negative news articles on the internet related to a court proceeding, we recommend checking out our blog post detailing how to improve your chances of getting online news articles removed.
What Usually Does Not Work For Clients Seeking Removal From a Court Records Website
Your first thought might be to go to the court-records website directly and request that they remove the public court documents. The next thought might be to hire a reputation management agency to remove the court records. There are several reasons why these strategies may not work.
There are five commonly used methods for removing court records from a website. Unfortunately, these methods are rarely effective.
- Sending a cease and desist letter;
- Suing the website that publishes the court records;
- Hiring a reputation management agency;
- Sending an angry email or telephone call to the court records website telling them to remove the court records;
- Using Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategies to make it less likely the court records will show up in a Google online search.
Sending a Cease & Desist
First, there is no law requiring a court-records website to take down the information. Court-records websites rely on an array of legal privileges and defenses to avoid having to remove content from publicly accessible court documents that were once freely available.
Should public court records be sealed or expunged down the road, this will only compel a court, county clerk, or government agency to remove the records – not a third-party court-records website.
This means that sending them a cease and desist letter will almost always fail as there is no legal basis for making the request. The website in question will know that any threat of legal action is likely a bluff.
Suing the Court Records Website
Second, you could try and sue the court-records website, but you have little chance of success. Just as suing the media for defamation is usually not your best option, suing a court-records website to remove a public court record is not recommended. That is because no state or federal law requires third-party websites to remove publicly available information. For more information on the subject, we recommend checking out our article, “Can You Sue the Media For False Information“?
And do not forget there is the First Amendment. The First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting a private party’s (such as a court-records website) speech.
Hiring a Reputation Management Agency
Third, a reputation management company might offer to pay the court-records website to take down the information. But a court-records website cannot be “paid off,” because they know they are not legally in the wrong.
They also want to have the most accurate and complete court information possible. Therefore, any offer from the reputation management company will not be enough to convince them to take down your court records.
Sending an Angry Email or Calling the Court Records Website
Fourth, you might consider sending an angry email or telephone call to the court-records website demanding they remove the court records. As emphasized above, third-party websites are not legally required to comply with your demand.
There is also the fact that you angered or annoyed the representatives of that court-records website. So now they are even less inclined to give you what you want.
In addition to trying to make money as a business, many court-records websites view themselves as having a duty to provide access to legal information. So they might view the removal of some of their content as being comparable to going into a library and asking the librarian to remove a particular book from circulation.
Employing SEO Strategies to Suppress Google Search Results
Fifth, you can try to bury the unwanted content in Google’s search results. This is not an ideal solution because it can take years to effectively bury information in internet search results. Many variables will determine where a search result will appear in page rankings, such as:
- Google’s SEO algorithms;
- Search volume;
- Keyword competition.
Even when something is effectively buried, the information is still available online. If there is a determined searcher, they can still find it. Besides, it may not stay buried forever.
Minc Law Can Help You Remove Public Court Records From the Internet
There are plenty of reasons why you may want to have your court records removed from the internet. And there are even more companies and individuals out there who claim to provide this service. But unless their services include asking a judge to seal or expunge the court records, any attempt is likely to fail or only provide a temporary solution.
I used Minc’s services to get images of my mugshot removed from a couple websites. I have not had success getting the mugshots removed on my own since the website administrators would not respond to my messages. Minc successfully coordinated the removal of these mugshots and made the process simple. They were easy to work with and I would definitely recommend them to others seeking similar services.
Anonymous, Jun 3, 2020
While the premise of the court record removal process is simple enough, it often takes the guidance of an experienced internet defamation attorney to maximize its efficacy. This is especially true when there are legal arguments in favor of keeping the court records public.
Having a lawyer advocate for your privacy can help you avoid some of the more common pitfalls people make when they try to remove court records and information from the internet.
At Minc Law, we have proven success removing public court records from the internet, and have helped thousands of clients take back their online reputation and privacy. Reach out today to schedule your free, initial no-obligation consultation by calling us at (216) 373-7706, speaking with a chat representative, or filling out our contact form.