Why Do Court Documents Get Sealed?

On October 31, 2022, the Indiana State Police Department announced that they arrested 50-year-old Richard M. Allen. Authorities suspect Allen of murdering 13-year-old Abigail "Abby" Williams and 14-year-old Liberty "Libby" German, reports NBC. The young girls disappeared in February 2017 after a day of hiking Delphi Historic Trails in Delphi, Illinois, per CNN.

Footage of the attacker, filmed by the girls just before their death, caught true crime obsessives' and armchair detectives' attention. Per NBC News, a video released by authorities includes eerie grainy images showing a man in a hoodie ordering the girls " ... Down the hill." As news of the arrest unfolded, many followers of the case, dubbed "The Delphi Murders," wanted answers.

However, Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter told reporters that a judge had sealed the case's documents. He stated, " ... nothing will happen between now and the second or third week of November. And then the judge will have to decide in the coming weeks and months what and when he decides to unseal those." Carter's statements prompted those curious about the case to wonder how often case documents are sealed and whether this news should cause concern. It turns out that sealing court records is a fairly common practice.

What are public records and what does it mean to be sealed?

According to Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute, court files are considered public records, any documentation produced or held by the government. Think government files, minutes, and correspondence. According to law, the government must make all its information available to its people. The Freedom of Information Act of 1967 ensures citizens have government information access. However, each state has laws that govern and enforce both requesting and providing records to the public. For example, many states have imposed fees for public records requests.

According to The Classroom, all court files are considered public records. Court files consist of trial information, materials regarding the case proceedings, and the verdict, explains Casamo and Associates. In fact, court files are typically the only type of public records that can be sealed, explains Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute. When a document is "sealed," commonly, it is hidden so that later, the information can still be read and used. When a document is sealed, staff and those with clearance can still access the information, writes Law Insider. However, in some cases, records are deleted or destroyed. Sometimes this is called "expunging" a record, which means destroying the files and information completely or simply striking it out. Criminal records are the type of court documents most often expunged. In most states and jurisdictions, some crimes like murder, rape, or deadly assault cannot be expunged.

When and why are court documents sealed?

Most often, court documents are sealed for reasons of privacy. According to The Knoxville Focus, one of the most common pieces of information sealed is "statistical data" in divorce cases, which includes social security numbers and other sensitive personal information. Other privacy-related reasons for sealing information include documentation regarding doctors, social workers, counselors, or therapists and their patients, explains Casamo and Associates.

According to The Classroom, a company's trade secrets are also considered private enough to be sealed. Similarly, cases involving minors are typically sealed until the involved parties become legal adults. Judges can also seal information regarding other ongoing lawsuits. Additionally, information that would cause embarrassment or is otherwise deemed "sensitive in nature" is often sealed (via The Knoxville Focus).

Safety is another common reason to seal court documents. If people involved, particularly in assault or abuse cases, may be in danger if the information is shared, the files will remain sealed (per The Classroom). To obtain sealed information, you need to file a motion to have the documents unsealed. A judge will decide whether you can access them (via The Knoxville Focus). Regarding the Delphi murder case, Carter warned that, per CNN, " ... if any other person had any involvement in these murders in any way, that person or person will be held accountable." In this situation, the case files may contain information that could tip off other people possibly under investigation.