Politics & Government

Here’s how to see public records in Washington

Finding out whether your coworker, daughter or legislator has a Washington state criminal record is as easy as a quick Internet search.

Most statewide court records are open to the public, and many are available online.

But criminal records aren’t the only reason to access court files. They can also be used to see civil filings like divorce records, and to assist in real estate and genealogy research.

Here’s how to get started:

How do I find out if someone as a Washington state criminal record?

The Washington Courts system provides basic court records online at http://dw.courts.wa.gov, searchable by name, case number or case name.

Under “search for a person,” click “name search.” Read the disclaimer and click “accept.” Enter as much information as you know. A middle name or initial will help distinguish defendants with the same first and last names.

The search will return an unofficial list of unsealed civil, criminal and traffic cases, which list the court date, county where the case took place and a basic case description.

Some cases, in bold, link to more detailed case information, including docket descriptions, which will give you a better idea of what the case is about.

This search only covers court cases in Washington state. Other states have varying standards of access.

The online information isn’t detailed enough to understand the case. How do I find out more?

If you want more information on a Whatcom County case, like court transcripts, judgments or related documents, take the case numbers you’re interested in to the Superior Court Clerk’s Office on the third floor at the Whatcom County Courthouse, 311 Grand Ave. in Bellingham.

(If the case is from another court, call or go to that court for more information.)

The office has several public computers you can use to access electronic case files through their database, searching by case number.

Click the “Whatcom County Cases” icon, and click “public login.” Enter the case number without hyphens in the column at the left of the screen. Leave the rest of the fields blank.

This search will retrieve electronic files for cases after 1998. Cases from 1846 to 1998 are available in microfilm or paper formats.

If you’re having trouble, the clerk can help you find what you need.

Cases that occurred outside Whatcom County must be accessed through those courts.

Historically relevant cases, like the Olympic Pipe Line Co. case, are available in the Western Washington University Archives and Records Center, in the Goltz-Murray Building, 808 25th St.

What records aren’t public?

Some examples of sealed cases include adoption records, mental illness and drug treatment commitment records, and paternity and confidential name-change records.

Although juvenile records are sealed in many states, they are public record in Washington state.