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Accessing Public Records in the U.S.

Accessing Public Records in the U.S.

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Published by Joseph Ryan
How to access free public records (local, state, federal) in the United States
How to access free public records (local, state, federal) in the United States

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Published by: Joseph Ryan on Oct 10, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Researching Public RecordsIn the United States, public records constitute a vast reservoir of information,but one that has seemed quite remote and hard to access for most people in thepast. Why? -- because these billions of records used to be available only atcounty courthouses and state and federal agencies. That is, in the past, you hadto physically hoof it over to your local courthouse and search in person for therecords you needed, whether they were real estate records, litigation records,corporate records, or whatever. What a headache!The Web has changed all that. Now you can sit at your home or office computer andobtain access to public records stored anywhere - at just about any courthouse oragency -- in the country. Now, I am not maintaining that all public records arepresently available online. But a great many are, and those that aren't can oftenbe 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 types ofinformation we're talking about.Below are listed some of the sorts of government records you have a right to viewfree of charge:At the State level...Federal Tax LiensCriminal RecordsCorporation RecordsIncarceration RecordsFictitious or Assumed NamesLimited Liability Company RecordsLimited Partnership RecordsState Tax LiensTrademark, Trade NameUniform Commercial Code FilingsWorkers' Compensation RecordsVessel RecordsSales Tax RegistrationsVehicle & Ownership RecordsDeath RecordsSexual Offender RecordsMarriage RecordsDivorce RecordsState Investigated Accident ReportsBirth RecordsDriver RecordsSome Types of Occupational LicensesPublic Records at the County Level...County Court Records (both civil and criminal)Tax Liens (also available at State level)Uniform Commercial Code records (also available at State level)Real Estate and Tax Assessor recordsVoter Registrations (accessibility varies)Vital Records (also available at State level)At the Federal Level...
Federal Court RecordsBankruptcy RecordsMilitary RecordsEDGAR Corporate FilingsIn addition a vast amount of demographic/economic/regulatory data are availablethrough Federal agency websitesThese lists are not exhaustive but merely hint at the quantity and types ofinformation you can access for free online. So why would you want to? A few goodreasons 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'strue marital status; people searching; determining a potential partner's financialviability; determining whether a professional person's license is in goodstanding; finding out if a supplier has been sued; and many more.Public Records EssentialsIt's quite important to understand there's a difference between public records andpublicly-available information. The term "public records" pertains mainly torecords maintained by government agencies that are freely available to the public,like real estate records and bankruptcy records. On the other hand your phone bookcontains "publicly-available" information. Generally, this is information peoplehave chosen to allow to be publicly-accessed, even though they don't have to. Ifyou want your address and phone number to remain private, you can refuse to let itbe published in a phone book. But with public record info, you really don't have achoice - the government makes it public, period.Similarly, notice that some information is always private, like medical recordsand credit information. You can't go onto a government website and find out ifsomebody has certain medical or psychiatric problems, and you can't get a copy oftheir credit report without their written consent. To do so violates the FairCredit Reporting Act, which Uncle Sam, by the way, takes very seriously. Even ifyou find an online information broker who promises to provide you with somebody'sprivate 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 ahotshot private eye to look into boardroom leaks, which involved investigating thepersonal 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 privateinformation, and there's also one other point to be aware of: jurisdictions(counties and states) are not uniform in their regulations regarding access torecords. For example, in some states you can access people's driving records withrelative ease (Colorado); in others you can't (California). Some states regardcriminal records as public (Texas); others don't (Massachusetts). You have toadhere to the regulations of the jurisdiction where you're accessing the records.Accessing Public RecordsAs indicated, many jurisdictions have not yet computerized their public records -particularly the smaller rural counties. So you can't access their records onlinebut 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 isbackgroundcheckgateway.com/statelist. Of course you can probably just put thecounty's name into Google and get the phone number, too.
Incidentally, there may be a small search fee, and/or a small copying fee, butthese will be modest - public record information is free unless you hire aprofessional document retriever to visit the agency or courthouse to access it foryou. If you want to look into this possibility, visit brbpub.com.Following are some thumbnail instructions for accessing public records by broadcategories:Accessing Business RecordsThese records are largely concentrated in the Secretary of State's office. Forexample you might need to know if a given company is incorporated or the date ofincorporation, or who the officers and directors are. Or you might needinformation on a limited liability company, a partnership, or a trade name, or onsales tax registrations.For SEC & other financial data, and for information pertaining to bankruptcies orpatents and copyrights, you need to search at the federal level.For information pertaining to mortgages, UCC's, tax liens, and real estate, youneed to focus on the county or local (city) level - most often, the county level.Accessing Court RecordsAccessing criminal records presents a real challenge in the U.S. (though it'seasier here than almost anywhere else in the world!)On the one hand, governments want to give you criminal record information so youcan avoid hiring or doing business with criminals; on the other hand, they don'twant to give you criminal record information because then you won't hire or dobusiness with ex-convicts, who then will be motivated to commit more crimes inorder 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 reasonablyefficient). So we find there is no single nationwide repository of criminalrecords in the U.S. except the FBI's National Crime Information Center, which isavailable only to police organizations. Criminal record information is maintainedon a strictly piecemeal, jurisdictional basis. Thus if your subject resides inColorado, you can run a statewide criminal records search there, and he/she maycome up clean - but in fact be a convicted felon in Indiana. Unless you also checkIndiana, you'll never know this.As a result, I believe this is a type of public records searching which is bestleft 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 thecounty level. For criminal records searching I recommend you hire an informationprofessional specializing in this kind of search, such as Intelius or USSearch.com.What about civil litigation? This can get complicated, because cases can fallunder county, state, or federal law. And of course municipalities also havecourts.If you're looking for federal cases - most of which are tried in U.S. DistrictCourts - 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 determineyour subject is involved in federal litigation, you may be able to access docket

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