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Investigative Journalism

Useful Terms

Useful Terms

Case file - File containing all documents filed in a case. Generally does not include trial transcripts. Case files are organized by the number of the case assigned by the court.

Defendant - Person or party who is sued in a civil case or accused in a criminal case.

Docket - Summary of proceedings in a case. May be part of a docket book or set of docket records.

Judgment - The official decision of a court.

Plaintiff - The person or party who starts a lawsuit. Plaintiff is a more historical term found in records at the Minnesota Historical Society. The modern term is petitioner.

For more legal terms see the glossary of court-related terms on the Indiana Courts website. 

Criminal and Civil Cases Defined

Criminal Court Cases: cases over allegations that an individual, business, or corporation has committed a crime by breaking a law.

They may concern:

  • serious felonies punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility and/or payment of fines (e.g., murder, rape, robbery, arson, burglary, kidnapping)
  • gross misdemeanors punishable by confinement in a local jail and/or payment of fines (e.g., multiple driving-while-intoxicated offenses)
  • petty misdemeanors punishable by payment of a fine (e.g., writing bad checks and parking tickets)

The government (the plaintiff) brings suit against (prosecutes) a person who they believe has broken the law (the defendant). If the defendant is convicted, he or she may have to serve time in jail or pay a fine.


Civil Court Cases: disputes between private citizens, governmental bodies, businesses, and organizations.

They may concern:

  • allegations of wrong-doing by one party against another
  • contract or payment disputes
  • personal or property rights
  • disputed property claims
  • adoptions
  • divorces

In a civil suit, one party (the plaintiff) who feels they were harmed brings a complaint against another party (the defendant). The judgment often will result in the award of monetary payments to one party.

State-Level Records

State courts have general jurisdiction and oversee the cases individual citizens are most likely to be involved in. State courts have jurisdiction over:

  • A crime that is a violation of state law. Most criminal activity falls in this category, such as robbery, assault, murder, and many drug-related crimes.
  • A controversy arising out of the state constitution or other state laws.
  • A case in which the state is a party, such as state tax violations.
  • Most real estate cases, malpractice, personal injury cases, and contract disputes.
  • All family, divorce, custody, inheritance and probate cases.
  • Most traffic and juvenile cases.

Resources for State cases

Indiana Court Records Online​ This website allows you to search for non-confidential cases in Indiana courts. You can search by case (with case or citation number), party (using the name of the person or business involved), or by Attorney (using the name or bar number of the attorney working on the case)

Appellate Case Search An index which allow you to search cases in the Indiana Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and Tax Court.

Court Reference Many trial courts make court records and court case information available online, although access varies from state to state. Use to find contact information for trial courts and online court records in every state and county.

National Center for State Courts​ Provides links to online court records by state. Note that some states do not provide online access to court records.

Sex and Violent Offender Registry The registry will allow you to choose a county in Indiana and enter any local address in that county. It will then provide a list of all registered county sex offenders living within a one-mile radius within the boundaries of the county selected. If you are looking for information about a particular sex offender registered in that county, the registry can help there as well.

Indiana Trial Courts & Clerk's Offices To get information about your case or court date, or to get copies of court documents not made available online, contact the county clerk's office or court where the case is being heard. These pages about Indiana's trial courts and clerk's offices include local contact information, local rules of court, and other information specific to the county.

Federal-Level Records

Federal courts have ​limited ​jurisdiction, only hearing cases of special circumstance. Most criminal and civil cases are heard in a state-level district court, but Federal Courts do have jurisdiction over:

  • Bankruptcy, copyright, patent, and maritime law cases
  • Cases in which the United States is a party
  • Certain criminal cases (under federal-question jurisdiction)
  • Certain civil cases (law, equity, and admiralty)

Resources for Federal cases

National Archives​ Federal case records that are 15 years old or older are held by the National Archives and can be found here. More recent cases are still in the possession of the individual courts.

PACER​ Allows users to obtain online access to case and docket information online from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts. However, to get personal access to PACER you must complete the online PACER registration form and the Judicial Conference of the United States has established a $.10 per page fee for access to PACER.

National Sex Offender Registry NSOPW is the only U.S. government Website that links public state, territorial, and tribal sex offender registries from one national search site. NSOPW’s advanced search tool provides information about sex offenders through a number of search options: name, address (if provided by jurisdiction), zip code, county, or city (if provided by jurisdiction)

NexisUni On the main menu, select the middle pull-down box on the bottom of the page called "Look up a legal Case" to search by citation, parties, or topic. Or direct your attention to the pull down box labelled "Search by Subject or Topic" in the upper right of the screen and select the "Legal" tab. This includes information on federal and state case, statutory, legal reference, patent search, as well as a large collection of law reviews.