Public records are the low-hanging fruit that no private investigator (PI) should pass up. A variety of documents is included under this umbrella, many of which can add preliminary data to your surveillance or round out a report.
A public record is any record created, received, retained, maintained, or filed by or with a public agency. Even if the record originated with a non-governmental source if it is given to a public agency it becomes public record (with a very few exceptions). Most public records are kept at the county courthouse, but you can access many of those same records through an aggregator, saving time as well as wear and tear on your vehicle and shoe leather.
Examples of Public Records
Public records include:
- Birth and death certificates also called vital records
- Marriage and divorce records
- Real estate records including property ownership, liens, and titles
- Court records and judgments
- Licensing documents including vehicle licenses
Unless one of these records has been sealed by court order or otherwise exempted, you have legal access.
SEC records and sometimes a person’s trash are also examples of public records. Another resource is news archives that used to be available only at a newspaper morgue or in a public library. These days you can find many older editions of publications online, either free or with a paid subscription.
A Brief Word about Trash
By federal law, all trash or garbage is considered public property unless otherwise determined by local law. Before dumpster diving for evidence, check the laws in your state, county, or city to find out whether the information you find can be considered legally obtained.
In some places, trash is considered private property until it is picked up by the garbage service, even though it is placed at the curb. Also, check for signage stating whether or not it's OK to rummage through any dumpsters on private or public property. Dumpsters are often owned by private companies that make the decision about whether to allow access to the contents.
Why Would a Private Investigator Use Public Records?
Private investigators accept all sorts of assignments. Sometimes a public records search is one of the first steps you should take in your investigation.
PIs are hired to collect evidence for divorce cases, property issues, and other related information to support the defense or prosecution in a court of law. A PI may be asked to perform a background check on an individual or a business.
For example, a party in a divorce case may be interested in determining property ownership data when it comes time to decide how to split assets. Someone who wishes to do business may want to see the articles of incorporation before they commit funding.
Tips for Using Public Records to Find People
You don’t want to spend a lot of time in fruitless pursuits, and you want to go to the right source the first time.
- Perform a comprehensive interview with your client. Get as much information as you can up front, including addresses, ID numbers, and the correct spelling of names. The more you have at the beginning, the easier your public records search will be.
- Determine the correct public records to use for your purpose. Obviously, you won’t find marriage certificates in a title plant (a database of title information), but you should also understand the various terms used for records. For example, if you are looking for a grantor/grantee index, that is a property record.
- Use an online public records resource like CourthouseDirect.com. Many public records are now available online. To save time, use a records aggregator where you can find multiple records or types of documents in one place.
- Verify and confirm information. Like any record, errors can creep into public records and be propagated throughout a series of documents. Verify your information as well as you can before presenting it to your client. Also, consider a disclaimer in your contract.
It’s become increasingly easy to find people, simply due to the current obsession with recording our lives online. Also, more and more legal entities choose to store data electronically and are digitizing physical records.
Use some creativity when performing your online searches. Find out not only names and physical addresses but also IP addresses and social media accounts. If your target puts it on the internet without securing it or limiting it to particular individuals, it’s fair game. You may even find information that steers you towards other public records you hadn’t searched or considered.
Also, don’t ignore records that may not be available online. You can still go to the courthouse to consult physical logs and records. You may find assistance in your quest from an experienced archivist or file clerk.
What to Include in a Typical Report
If your client wishes a comprehensive report, you won’t stop with finding someone’s name online. You will verify their identity, financial and credit history, education, and perhaps even their driving record.
Identity verification includes obtaining the person's first and last name, social security number, marital status, and property ownership, both current and past. Criminal records are matters of public record. You can find arrest records, court records, police reports, and more if you are performing a background check.
A credit history report reveals the institutions an individual deals with for finances. Employment verifications require verifying the information on someone’s resume, such as academic credentials and work history.
The Department of Motor Vehicles is a public agency; therefore, the licensing records are publicly accessible as are parts of the history of DUIs or other criminal information related to operating a vehicle.
Freedom of Information Act
Even though most government records are public, you may be required to access specific information through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The act is a law granting people the right to access information from the federal government.
Federal agencies must disclose the requested information unless it falls under one of the nine exemptions outlined in the act, including national security and law enforcement privacy requirements.
Public records are a veritable goldmine of information available to private investigators and members of the general public. In many cases, you can access almost every document you need from your computer or smartphone. The amount of information available should enable you to take on more cases, especially as you become an expert in where to look.