NEW YORK CRIMINAL COURTS
County Court (1847+)
In all counties outside of New York City the County Court has jurisdiction over felonies and over misdemeanors that may be prosecuted by indictment. (In exceptional circumstances the Supreme Court may accept a criminal case.) Prior to 1896 the criminal term of the County Court was called the Court of Sessions. For varying periods during the later nineteenth century certain city courts had jurisdiction over felony cases. Records of the County Court are usually maintained by the county clerk, though in a few counties the court retains its recent criminal files.
Court of General Sessions (1683-1847)
The Court of General Sessions was a county-level court having jurisdiction over all felony cases not punishable by death or life imprisonment (those cases were reserved to the Court of Oyer and Terminer). Certain city courts had equivalent jurisdiction. (The Court of General Sessions in New York County continued as that county's superior criminal court until 1962.) Surviving minute books and indictment files are usually held by the county clerk. Lists of county and city criminal court records from the colonial period are found in Douglas Greenberg, Crime and Law Enforcement in the Colony of New York 1691-1776 (Ithaca: 1976), and Julius Goebel and T. Raymond Naughton, Law Enforcement in Colonial New York: A Study in Criminal Procedure (1664-1776) (New York: 1944; repr. 1970).
Court of Oyer and Terminer (1683-1895)
Justices of the Supreme Court presided over a Court of Oyer and Terminer (old French, "hear and determine) in each county at least once a year. The court's jurisdiction was the same as that of the Court of General Sessions or County Court, except that Oyer and Terminer had jurisdiction over crimes punishable by life imprisonment or death. Any surviving records of this court are held by the county clerk.
Supreme Court of Judicature (1691-1847)
Though primarily a civil court, the Supreme Court during the colonial period occasionally tried felony cases. The surviving records of the colonial Supreme Court are in the New York County Clerk's Office. (A 1799 statute empowered the court to destroy all criminal indictments and other case papers pre-dating 1776; the only surviving records are minutes.)
Court of Assizes (1665-1683)
This court had both civil and criminal jurisdiction. The few surviving records of this court are in the New York State Archives [series A0271, available on microfilm] and the New-York Historical Society. See Peter R. Christoph and Florence A. Christoph, eds., Records of the Court of Assizes for the Colony of New York, 1665-1682 (Baltimore: 1983).
Dutch Courts (pre-1664, 1674-75)
Most if not all surviving trial court records from the Dutch government have been published. See Berthold Fernow, ed., The Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674, 7 vols. (New York: 1897); A.J.F. Van Laer, trans. and ed., Minutes of the Court of Rensselaerswyck 1648-1652 (Albany: 1922), and Minutes of the Court of Fort Orange and Beverwyck 1652-1656 (Albany: 1920), the latter superseded by Charles T. Gehring, trans. and ed., Fort Orange Court Minutes 1652-1660 (Syracuse: 1990); and A.J.F. Van Laer, trans. and ed., Minutes of the Court of Albany, Rensselaerswyck and Schenectady [1668-85], 3 vols. (Albany: 1926-32).
New York City Criminal Courts
In the five counties within New York City the Supreme Court has had exclusive jurisdiction over felony cases since 1962. Before 1962 the New York County Court of General Sessions and the County Court in the other four boroughs had superior criminal jurisdiction. Since 1962 the Criminal Court of the City of New York has had jurisdiction over misdemeanors and lesser offenses, as well as preliminary proceedings in felony cases. Before 1962 New York City courts vested with inferior criminal jurisdiction were the Court of Special Sessions (1732-1962 after the mid-nineteenth century it had many specialized divisions), the "Police Court" (1798-1895) and the succeeding Magistrates' Courts (1895-1962). Records of the criminal courts in New York City for recent decades are maintained by the courts. Many records of the Court of General Sessions are held by the Municipal Archives and the New York County Clerk's Office. The Municipal Archives also holds voluminous records (dating back to the 1790s, many of them on microfilm) of the city's lower criminal courts and of the New York County district attorney's office. See Guide to Federal, County and Municipal Archives in the City of New York (New York: 1989). For a history of the New York City courts, see The Encyclopedia of New York City, ed. Kenneth T. Jackson (New Haven: 1995), pp. 290-95.
City, Town, Village, and District Courts
New York has nearly 1500 lower criminal courts, which are empowered to dispose of offenses below the level of felony. City, town, village, and district courts handle felony arraignments and try misdemeanors and lesser offenses. Each town has two or more elected town justices (formerly justices of the peace).
All larger and some smaller villages have village justice courts (formerly police courts). All city courts have appointed clerks who maintain the court's records. However, most town and village courts have no clerks of their own, and the town and village clerks take custody of the records after a justice leaves office. In recent decades District Courts have replaced town and village justice courts in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Those courts maintain their own records.
Between 1820 and 1970 statute required all the lower criminal courts (city, town, village, and district) to file certificates of convictions with the county clerk's office. Some counties maintain these certificates dating back to the nineteenth century. The certificates serve to document the business of the lower criminal courts, most of whose older records have long since been destroyed. Some historical societies and libraries around the state have old docket books of local justices of the peace. (The books remained in private hands, and were not retained by the town clerk.)
Family Court (1962+)
The Family Court was established in 1962 and operates in each county. The court has jurisdiction over criminal offenses committed by minors, as well as assault by one family member against another, failure to support legal dependents, paternity of illegitimate children, etc. Family Court records are maintained by the court's chief clerk. Access to the records is restricted, but the Family Court judge may grant access to "any person or agency having a legitimate purpose."
The predecessor to the Family Court in counties outside of New York City was the Children's Court, established in 1922. In New York City a Children's Court was organized in 1902 and a Family Court in 1921; both courts were succeeded by the Domestic Relations Court of New York City, which functioned between 1933 and 1962. All these courts had areas of jurisdiction later given to the Family Court, and that court maintains any surviving records of the predecessor courts. Prior to the early twentieth century the County Court had jurisdiction over criminal offenses committed by juveniles. An 1892 statute required the courts to keep separate docket books for criminal cases involving juvenile defendants under age 16. Prior to that date the regular court minutes and files would include information on juvenile defendants.
Access to Records of Criminal Courts
The Judiciary Law generally makes records of court proceedings open for public inspection. However, certain categories of records are not freely accessible: sealed records of criminal defendants who were acquitted, or whose cases were dismissed; records of youthful offenders; records relating to sex crimes; and all records of the Family Court and predecessor courts. Questions about access to court records should be directed to the court clerk or to the Office of Court Administration, 25 Beaver Street, New York, New York 10004; phone: (212) 428-2875. A directory of county- and city-level courts and of appellate courts is found in the current edition of the New York Lawyers Diary and Manual. An on-line directory of criminal courts is found at New York State Unified Court System's website.