Legal Hotline: Judicial Records and RTKL

Legal Hotline: Judicial Records and RTKL

Q:  We want to review a criminal complaint filed with the county Court of Common Pleas as part of a murder prosecution.  Is this record public under the Right-to-Know Law and should we file an RTKL request with the court?

A: The criminal complaint is a public record and should be available from the court, but the RTKL does not govern access to this type of record, and RTKL requests for this type of record are not appropriate.

The RTKL does not govern access to judicial records filed with the court in a criminal or civil case. The RTKL provides a means of access to the financial records of the court system, including salaries and budget information. However, the court system has adopted Rule of Judicial Administration 509, which is similar to, but not the same as, the RTKL’s public access provisions regarding financial records of the court. Citizens seeking access to the court’s financial records should file a Rule 509 request with the applicable court agency.

As a general rule, records filed with or relied upon by the court as part of criminal and civil cases are considered judicial records. Judicial records are presumptively public under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions, as well as common law. This presumption of access can only be overcome if the party seeking closure (a seal order) can show that the need for secrecy outweighs the right of public access. Each request for closure must be evaluated on an individual basis. A court must hold a hearing, on the record, to determine whether closure is appropriate, and if a closure is ordered, the court must issue specific findings of fact supporting the order. It is also important to note that any closure order must be narrowly tailored and use the least restrictive means to comply with the required legal standard.

Judicial records related to criminal prosecutions like a criminal complaint are available from the court office in which they are filed, typically the magisterial district court or the clerk of courts office at the county court level. In most cases, media requests made at the court filing office are simple and straightforward, and a formal written request is not necessary. If a request is complex or voluminous, the court may require a written request prior to access. The Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System Public Access Policy generally governs access to court records across the commonwealth and it incorporates various court rules and statutes that impose limits on the availability of certain information and court records such as Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Law. Any limit on public access must be interpreted and applied consistent with applicable constitutional and common law access principles. You can learn more about the court’s public access policies, rules and access request forms here.

In addition to records available at a court filing office, docket sheets, court summaries, scheduling information and other records are also available on the UJS case search system. The UJS also collects and provides access to electronic data about cases through data dashboards and through data access policies governing electronic case records.

If your newsroom has sought access to criminal case files and has been denied, please contact PNA Media Law Counsel Melissa Melewsky at melissam@pa-news.org. PNA, along with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other organizations interested in transparent courts, is working to identify and resolve access issues across the state. We are collecting examples of inappropriate barriers to access to both address the specific problem and to share with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and other interested public officials working toward a systemic remedy.

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Please contact your news organization’s attorney or the PNA Legal Hotline with questions at (717) 703-3080.