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Is My Legal Case Public Record?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

When writing about broad legal topics for these blogs, we often bring up specific examples to explain the law. For instance, we used Bill Cosby's wife to talk about when spouses can be forced to testify. Of course, Camille Cosby and her husband are public figures, so that comes with the territory, so to speak.

Not everyone whose case we write about is famous (yet), and we often get angry calls, emails, or tweets, when someone sees their name or legal case on our websites. Here's the thing though: almost all civil and criminal legal filings are public records, and the First Amendment protects publishing them.

Public or Private?

Let's start with the general rule: most legal proceedings are public. Courtrooms are generally open to the general public; civil lawsuits are public records; and criminal charges can be released to the press. There are some exceptions and limitations, but you should know that if you are arrested, your name and mugshot can be published, and if you sue someone or get sued, that lawsuit can be public information. Even divorce proceedings might be public.

And now the exceptions. Almost all criminal and civil filings involving minors will avoid using the child's name, and in many criminal cases, like rape, the accuser's name will be withheld for safety reasons. You can petition the court to seal come civil filings, like divorce records, so that they are not made public. And most criminal defendants have the one-time option of expunging their criminal records, meaning their criminal history will only be available to law enforcement and not the general public.

Private Then Public

Even if one of the exceptions applies to your legal case, information, evidence, or documents may nevertheless become part of the public record. For example, even though Bill Cosby's deposition in a civil case was sealed, it ended up being leaked. Although Cosby's attorneys were upset over the release, once the deposition was disclosed, free speech protections allowed outlets to publish its contents.

Freedom of the press allows news organizations to publish information, even if it has been obtained illegally, so long as the privacy interests are outweighed by the "interest in publishing matters of public importance."

While some people would love to see their name in print, they would like it to be for good reasons rather than bad. But the public nature of legal cases and expansive First Amendment protections means your name may be published, on this website or others.

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