This is probably quite surprising to the average person, but some of the most valuable information private investigators glean in their investigations comes from public records. And public records aren’t just accessible by private investigators, hence their name - public records. They are accessible by everyone. They are accessible by you.
Accessing public records is an art. The three most important components of mastering this art are knowing what to search for, how to best search for it, and where to find it. Unfortunately, searching public records isn’t known for it’s simplicity or ease of use. In fact, there are professionals whose entire jobs revolve around accessing government records. Since public records can be found at the federal, state, and local levels, it makes sense that this can turn into a very complicated and time-consuming process. At the local level alone, there are over 3,000 courthouses that all house public records.
My advice to anyone who is going to use public records to uncover information about a person is to start with a plan. As a private investigator, I obtain as much information as I can about my target through my client, private investigator databases, social media, and a thorough Internet search. Before attempting a public records search, I create a timeline of my target’s history. I want to know where my target has been. In creating a solid address history, I can then narrow my search locations for public records. For example, if I discover my target has lived in Abiline, Texas; San Angelo, Texas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Joplin, Missouri, I know I need to search Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri records, as well as the Abilene, San Angelo, Tulsa, and Joplin areas. I also can’t forget about a federal search in every case I research. I have narrowed my work immensely, but it’s still going to be fairly labor intensive.
Keep in mind that the following helpful hints are my VERY over-simplified versions for accessing public records. There are entire books written about this topic. Two of my favorites that provide the opposite ends of the spectrum are Courthouse Research for Family Historians by Christine Rose and The Manual To Online Public Records by Michael L. Sankey and Cynthia Hetherington.
Local courthouses can be treasure troves of information. Visiting a courthouse or even accessing their online records just takes a bit of knowledge concerning what is available and how to best access it. One of the more frustrating factors with local courthouses is that identical records can be housed in different locations or under various names, depending on the courthouse. One courthouse might use the term “Office of Vital Records” while another might use “Office of Vital Statistics” or even “Recorder’s Office”. So again, you just have to know what it is you are searching, how to best search for it, and where to find it. My best advice on this is simply to ask questions and be very polite in the process.
Many local courthouses now provide online access to their records, so always check this option first to save time and money. But be aware that online records have their limitations and there is a greater likelihood for typos, other errors, or even complete omissions altogether. Depending on your needs, it might still be a better idea to physically visit a courthouse yourself or hire a professional court researcher to do it for you. It’s also helpful to be mindful that whether you choose to physically visit a courthouse, search for records online, or hire a professional to search for you, there are varying costs involved.
Here are a few places to start:
- Recorder of Deeds/Registrar of Deeds/Clerk of Court/County Clerk - real estate records, judgments, deeds, & liens against individuals
- Recorder’s Office - wills
- County Assessor/Auditor/Property Valuator/Property Appraiser/Tax Assessor/Tax Collector - property tax assessment records, including vehicle registration
- Office of Vital Records/Office of Vital Statistics/Recorder’s Office (can also sometimesbe found at the local Department of Health) - birth, death, marriage, & divorce records
- Circuit Court Clerk’s Office/Register of Wills/Surrogate’s Office/Orphan’s Court - probate records, civil court records (divorces, name changes, adoptions, naturalizations), & civil lawsuits
- Court Record Archives/Court Clerk’s Office - criminal court records
- County Registrar of Voters - voter registration records (also called precinct books or voter rosters)
- Others - cemetery records, real estate records, genealogical materials, historic newspapers, & business DBA
There are state repositories and archives that house public records related to civil, criminal, domestic, traffic, trial court, appeals, and others. Click here for one of the best Internet sites that gives an overview of all of the states’ records available for searching. It is also worthy to note that some local courthouses send their older records off to state repositories for storage. It’s always extremely important to ask questions and to be very specific in your inquiries.
All states have a central repository for criminal records that is managed by that state’s law enforcement agency. Each of these is generally designated as the official source for a state criminal background check. However, other state-related criminal records can also be found in other state repositories such as prisons, sex offender registries, and federal government watch lists. Visit www.vinelink.com for a list of most state offender databases for criminal records.
Only 27 states currently allow public access to their criminal records. Another 17 states require a signed release from the target and the remaining 6 require the submission of fingerprints before they will release information.
All state inmate or incarceration records are considered public. For an overview of these agencies, visit www.corrections.com. The amount of information available varies from state to state, but some do also include information on parolees and probationers.
Sex offender registries are always available at the state level. It just requires a search for the specific state of your inquiry.
All states regulate occupations that require a license with a professional licensing office or licensing board. Not all states consider this information public record, but many do and this information can often be accessed online.
Voter registration information is collected by local agencies and housed in a central state repository, but is not usually accessible by the public at the state level. Around 2/3 of the states do release voter registration information, but typically only to those with a political or research purpose.
Generally, the Secretary of State’s Office possesses information on liens against businesses.
For federal public records, PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) is the way to go. This invaluable resource is very nearly free to anyone who chooses to access it’s services. There is a ten cent fee for every downloaded page, but if your quarterly fees are less than $15, you pay nothing. It produces case and docket information on any individual or entity from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts. This resource is updated nightly.
Check out www.bop.gov for persons in federal prison, as well as those who have served time since 1982.
The national sex offender registry can be accessed at https://www.nsopw.gov.
Information on active military personnel can be found at www.dmdc.osd.mil/appj/scra/scraHome.do. The searcher needs a name and full social security number in order to complete a search.
For open bankruptcy cases, you can call 866-222-8019.
This blog post is merely the tip of the iceberg. Searching public records is a giant task, but it can be made less daunting if you start with a plan. The biggest obstacle is simply knowing these records are out there, available to be searched by anyone. Now you know. Happy hunting!