Researching Public Records
In the United States, public records constitute a huge reservoir of free information, but one that has seemed quite remote and hard to access for most people in the past. Why? Because these billions of records used to be available only at county courthouses and state and federal agencies. That is, in the past, you had to physically hoof it over to your local courthouse and search in person for the records you needed, whether they were real estate records, litigation records, corporate records, or whatever. What a headache.
The Internet has changed all that. Now you can sit at your office or home computer and obtain access to public records stored anywhere – at just about any courthouse or agency — in the country. Now, I am not maintaining that all public records are presently available online. But a great many are, and those that aren’t can often be accessed with a phone call to the Recorder’s Office or County Clerk.
However before you get too excited take a look at the specific sorts of information we’re talking about.
Below are listed some of the types of government records you have a right to view free of charge:
At the State level…
-Federal Tax Liens
-Fictitious or Assumed Names
-Limited Liability Company Records
-Limited Partnership Records
-Trademark, Trade Name
-State Tax Liens
-Uniform Commercial Code Filings
-Workers’ Compensation Records
-Sales Tax Registrations
-Vehicle & Ownership Records
-Sexual Offender Records
-State Investigated Accident Reports
-Some Types of Occupational Licenses
Public Records Available at the County Level…
-Real Estate and Tax Assessor records
-County Court Records (both civil and criminal)
-Tax Liens (also available at State level)
-Uniform Commercial Code records (also available at State level)
-Voter Registrations (accessibility varies)
-Vital Records (also available at State level)
Available at the Federal Level…
-EDGAR Corporate Filings
-Federal Court Records
What’s more a vast amount of demographic/economic/regulatory data are available through various Federal agency websites
These lists are not exhaustive but merely hint at the quantity and types of information you can access for free online. So why would you want to? A few good reasons come to mind, such as: research pertaining to investments; trademarks/patents research; background checks on potential business associates; real estate investment due diligence; determining a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s true marital status; people searching; determining a potential partner’s financial viability; determining whether a professional person’s license is in good standing; finding out if a supplier has been sued; and many more.
Basics of Public Records
It’s very important to realize there’s a difference between public records and publicly-available information. The term “public records” pertains mainly to records maintained by government agencies that are freely available to the public, like real estate records and bankruptcy records. On the other hand your phone book contains “publicly-available” information. Generally, this is information people have chosen to allow to be publicly-accessed, even though they don’t have to. If you want your address and phone number to remain private, you can refuse to let it be published in a phone book. But with public record info, you really don’t have a choice – the government makes it public, period.
Similarly, notice that some information is always private, like medical records and credit information. You can’t go onto a government website and find out if somebody has certain medical or psychiatric problems, and you can’t get a copy of their credit report without their written consent. To do so violates the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which Uncle Sam, by the way, takes very seriously. Even if you find an online information broker who promises to provide you with somebody’s private information, you’re wise to pass. Remember how much trouble Patricia Dunn, the chairperson of Hewlett-Packard, got herself into a few years ago by hiring a hotshot private eye to look into boardroom leaks, which involved investigating the personal lives of HP’s board members? You don’t need that kind of trouble.
So it’s very important to understand the difference between public and private information, and there’s also one other point to be aware of: jurisdictions (counties and states) are not uniform in their regulations regarding access to records. For example, in some states you can access people’s driving records with relative ease (Colorado); in others you can’t (California). Some states regard criminal records as public (Texas); others don’t (Massachusetts). You have to adhere to the regulations of the jurisdiction where you’re accessing the records.
Public Records Access
As said previously, many jurisdictions have not yet computerized their public records – particularly the smaller rural counties. So you can’t access their records online but you can at least get their phone numbers online and give them a call. Oftentimes county clerks will run searches for you while you wait on the phone. One good source of county courthouse phone numbers is backgroundcheckgateway.com/statelist. Of course you can probably just put the county’s name into Google and get the phone number, too.
Incidentally, there may be a small search fee, and/or a small copying fee, but these will be modest – public record information is free unless you hire a professional document retriever to visit the agency or courthouse to access it for you. If you want to look into this possibility, visit brbpub.com.
Following are brief instructions for accessing public records by broad categories:
Business Records Access
Business records are largely concentrated in the Secretary of State’s office. For example you might need to know if a given company is incorporated or the date of incorporation, or who the officers and directors are. Or you might need information on a limited liability company, a partnership, or a trade name, or on sales tax registrations.
For Security Exchange Commission other financial data, and for information pertaining to bankruptcies or patents and copyrights, you need to search at the federal level.
For information pertaining to mortgages, UCC’s, tax liens, and real estate, you need to focus on the county or local (city) level – most often, the county level.
Court Records Access
Criminal records access presents a real challenge in the United States (though it’s easier here than almost anywhere else in the world.)
On the one hand, governments want to give you criminal record information so you can avoid hiring or doing business with criminals; on the other hand, they don’t want to give you criminal record information because then you won’t hire or do business with ex-convicts, who then will be motivated to commit more crimes in order to survive.
So it seems they compromise by making the information hard to get (or more likely, bureaucracy dictates that the process can not be streamlined and made reasonably efficient). So we find there is no single nationwide repository of criminal records in the U.S. except the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, which is available only to police organizations. Criminal record information is maintained on a strictly piecemeal, jurisdictional basis. Thus if your subject resides in Colorado, you can run a statewide criminal records search there, and he/she may come up clean – but in fact be a convicted felon in Indiana. Unless you also check Indiana, you’ll never know this.
As a result, I believe this is a type of public records searching which is best left to the pros. You can’t realistically check every state. And for that matter, most states won’t give you the information anyway, so you’ll have to check at the county level. For criminal records searching I recommend you hire an information professional specializing in this kind of search, such as Intelius or USSearch.com.
What about civil litigation? This can get complicated, because cases can fall under county, state, or federal law. And of course municipalities also have courts.
If you’re looking for federal cases – most of which are tried in U.S. District Courts – start with the U.S. Party/Case Index. This is a nationwide index for U.S. District, bankruptcy and appellate courts. If, using this index, you determine your subject is involved in federal litigation, you may be able to access docket information online using PACER (provided the litigation is current or recent). Older case documents are maintained by the various Federal courts or transferred to the Federal Records Center.
At the state level, searching online is largely limited to the courts’ docket sheets (case histories). Today, many state courts provide Internet access to their dockets. For detailed information on state-by-state availability, visit brbpub.com or see Public Records Online, published by Facts on Demand Press.
Marriage/Divorce Records Access:
Our company, Washington Research Associates, Inc., has developed an eBook (it’s a free download) which lists virtually every online source for researching someone’s marital status. You can download it at marriagedivorcerecords.com.
Recording Office Record Access
Your county or city recording office has remarkable complete information on nearly every piece of real estate in the county – sale prices, mortgages, liens, property descriptions, improvements, etc – and this is all public info. Recording office data is now widely available on the Internet. A good source is netronline.com. Incidentally, for all the latest news about your county or any county of interest, try visiting naco.org.
How to Locate U.S. Government Portals
Washington Research Associates has also developed an extremely extensive list of the best governmental portals for accessing public records and other types of publicly-available information.
A Software & Application Development Company