The term “public record” has always been VERY misleading. Even though a record is “public” and available for public scrutiny in the strictest sense, in reality it may not be readily available. The availability of numerous public records via the Internet has addressed some of the accessibility issues and, in turn, has been a tremendous advancement for the professional researcher, investigator and skip tracer. I used to have to spend numerous hours driving to and from various courthouses looking for public records, often on a wild goose chase. These days, pretty much everything I need is available via the internet.
While skip tracing through online county clerk of court records, I use most often use the civil and criminal indexes (don’t forget the traffic citations and parking violations), marriage records, property conveyances and UCC filings. I often access property tax/ownership rolls, and “business tax receipts” (business and occupational licenses) through the county tax collector.
While not technically the Internet, I have access to Florida Motor Vehicle Registration information for free via a FL State system called “Tag Talk” via the telephone, which is available only to a select few business types.
What’s available varies greatly from state to state, with many states differing greatly on what is and is not considered “public”. For example, until recently some states, such as Tennessee, considered driving records to be “public” while others, such as California, did not. The US Supreme Court ruled some time ago (docket number 98-1464, decided January 12, 2000) that driving records are not “public” records, and therefore will only be available on a VERY limited basis in every state. Certainly, legislation is driving what records are available to the public but so is the speed at which various records holders are adopting the required technology and digitizing their archives. While records in the counties surrounding where I live in Florida are online I come across daily many courts and other sources of public records that are not yet online.
Some states, such as Florida (http://www.dos.state.fl.us/), not only have a plethora of free public record information on the web (such as UCC filings, trademark owner names, corporate records and annual reports), they also provide the actual images of the full public record.
Even when information is considered “public,” agencies still may not provide free Web access to the information. In these instances, we’re no better off than we were 10 years ago, and are forced to use either a fee-based commercial database, court researchers and investigators or send “snail mail” directly to the clerk.
For an EXCELLENT meta-site that lists states providing free public records and links to them via the Web, go to Search Systems at http://www.searchsystems.net, it is honestly the best $5 a month I spend for database access and public records resources! Sure, I could probably find the website of the records I am looking for but why waste the time? Besides, I didn’t even know that some of the records I have used even existed before I started looking through their web site. For example, I didn’t know that the Florida State Employee directory was available but just recently used it to complete a case I was working on.
Search Systems was the first on the Internet to establish a directory of hard-to-find public record databases. Since then Search Systems’ directory has grown and now provides access to over 36,000 databases containing billions of public records. Each link is handpicked for content and usefulness and is offered with a service description. Search Systems’ public record service offers the investigator the chance to get the facts on people or businesses from area which used to be out of reach. Researchers can access a directory of criminal record databases, verify contractor and professional licenses, check out corporations, and look up property records and business permits. The site provides access to marriage and death records, the location of sex offenders, and much more.
BRB Publications puts out a pretty good list of public records sites and reference material too, which can be accessed via www.brbpub.com (and it’s free).
The following are online public records most often used by investigators and a description of each; again, differences are going to occur between states and counties:
Civil Index- A list of civil actions filed through the courts which often include lawsuits, judgments, liens, divorces, foreclosures, affidavits, powers of attorney, etc. The civil index may also include traffic infractions and parking violations in some areas.
Criminal Index- A record of arrests and case disposition concerning the accusation of crimes, including felonies and misdemeanors, committed by persons within the record keeper’s jurisdiction. The criminal index may also include traffic infractions and parking violations in some areas.
Real Property Records- Include deeds, titles, mortgages, easements, gas/oil/mineral leases and UCC filings. UCC or Uniform Commercial Code, filings allow a creditor to notify other creditors about a debtor’s liens or assets used as collateral for a secured transaction by filing a notice or financing statement in the public record. Most UCC statements are now available via a statewide search even though they were filed at the local or county level. UCC filings have help skip tracers find many many many skips!
Tax Collector or Assessor- may provide online information concerning sales and use tax registration, property taxes and assessed values, business licenses, etc.
Recorder’s Office- handles all recorded documents, marriage and birth records, election information, UCC filings, liens, judgments, military discharges, notaries, archives, etc. I love marriage records for the simple fact that you can find dates of birth, states and cities of birth, maiden names, previous married names, NEW names and previous spouses (who ironically, are often more than willing to help skip tracers find debtor-ex-spouses).
Secretary of State Records- May include filing information for UCC statements, Corporate, LLP and LLC records, fictitious business name filings, trademark registrations, and Federal liens.
Take the time to look for direct access to the online records you will use the most; I find that I almost exclusively require records from just two counties and a few different state records resources.
Federal Court Records- Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information from Federal Appellate, District and Bankruptcy courts, and the U.S. Party/Case Index via the Internet. Links to all Federal courts and their criminal, civil and bankruptcy records are provided via PACER. Electronic access is available by registering with the PACER Service Center, the judiciary’s centralized registration, billing, and technical support center.
All registered agencies or individuals will be charged a user fee. Access to web based PACER systems will generate a $.08 per page charge. The per page charge applies to the number of pages that results from any search, including a search that yields no matches (one page for no matches.) The charge applies whether or not pages are printed, viewed, or downloaded.
Additional online Federal searches are available such as Federal Aviation Administration pilot license and aircraft registration information or the US Coast Guard’s Captain’s License and documented vessel searches as well as many others. I’ll actually discuss how I used the FAA Airman’s database to close a tough case a few years ago in the Internet Profiling chapter. The point here is that you never know where you might find that one sliver of information that leads to a successful locate…
Prisons and Jail Searches- Many times I will find a subject in jail when I come to a dead end or feel as though he or she just fell off of the face of the planet. To check if your subject is in the Federal prison system, you can call the Bureau of Prisons and they will run a search on a name and DOB for free- (202) 307-3126. You might try their online inmate locator at www.bop.gov as well.
For state prison information you can start your search from the “Resources” or “Inmate Locator” page located at www.corrections.com. They have many links to online state offender information and inmate searches.
Another resource you may use to your advantage is www.vinelink.com!
“VINELink is the online version of VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday), the National Victim Notification Network. This service allows crime victims to obtain timely and reliable information about criminal cases and the custody status of offenders 24 hours a day. Victims and other concerned citizens can also register to be notified by phone, email or TTY device when an offender’s custody status changes.”
While coverage is still pretty sparse, I once located a subject through VINELINK, who ended up being incarcerated in Shelby County, Tennessee. I was trying to serve with a subpoena and, for one reason or another, the judge would not allow service upon him while he was in jail so I set up an alert through their service number to notify me of the subject’s release from jail. When I was alerted via email a couple of months later, I had a process server out there to serve him on the day of his release.
Don’t forget to check the sex offender registry for possible location information concerning your subject! I prefer to use www.familywatchdog.us. You just never know…
Death Records- The Death Master File (DMF) from the Social Security Administration (SSA) contains records of deaths that have been reported to the Social Security Administration. Try http://ssdi.rootsweb.com/
You might also try search searching through obituaries via online newspaper aggregators such as www.legacy.com or www.obitcentral.com and some county coroners are now placing their unclaimed dead persons into online searchable databases too.
We all gotta go sometime… Perhaps your subject already went.
This article is a small excerpt from The Art of Skip Tracing and Missing Persons Investigations, an online skip tracing course for private investigators.