Virginia courts quietly roll out online statewide criminal records searches

A police officer walks into the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s court system made it a lot easier to find online court records last week, quietly rolling out a statewide search function on its website that allows users to search by a defendant’s name to find docket information about criminal and traffic charges back to 1990 or earlier in most jurisdictions.

Previously, the records were available online, but searches were limited to specific courthouses, meaning a user had to either know where charges were filed to find them or conduct hundreds of individual searches.

The General Assembly required the Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary to provide the new function as part of legislation passed in March 2018, which mandated the new system to go live by the beginning of this month.

There was little discussion at the time. Lawmakers rolled the bill, proposed by Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, into a broader (and more widely reported) open records law championed by the Daily Press in Newport News that requires the court system to provide bulk data to those who request it.

The newspaper’s advocacy was bolstered by open government advocates, who used time-consuming scraping techniques to provide both bulk data and a rudimentary statewide search function beginning in 2014.

Ben Schoeneld, who created VirginiaCourtData.org to provide the data free of charge, said he would cease operating the statewide search he created and cease scraping data now that both functions are available through official channels.

While the new system will make it easier for journalists to, say, vet a candidate for public office or cover breaking news, it remains unclear how it will be received by the wider public, particularly as momentum grows to limit the role of criminal record searches in employment screenings.