Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research
Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research

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The Art of Public Records Research


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published in The CyberSkeptic's Guide to Internet Research (November/December 2005).

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Updated 27 November 2007. Corporate clients' need for information from public records runs the gamut from validating a businessperson's credentials to gaining a competitive edge in the marketplace. Clients might ask you to assess a potential partner's reputation, find assets, identify ownership, affiliations or relationships, discover activity in a certain field or geographic region, determine consumer reaction to products or services, uncover evidence of legal problems, or conduct research on just about anything that pertains to doing business. Often stimulating intellectually, such work requires attention to detail, creativity, persistence, patience and the ability to elicit information from people who don't know what they know. In other words, it demands superior research skills.

Since you are reading The CyberSkeptic's Guide to Internet Research, chances are you already know how to conduct research. But success in public records research means acquiring special knowledge and honing telephone and paper research skills. As the latest statistics indicate, online searching will take you only so far. Sixty-five percent of public records remain offline. Of the 35 percent online, many contain no personally identifying information. (Public Records Online, 5th edition, Facts on Demand Press, 2004, p. 12.)

This article explains important differences between public records, public information and private information. It introduces select public records databases and search techniques. It would take a book to cover all worthwhile sources. It's a good thing, then, that public records publisher, BRB Publications, Inc., offers several.

Click the icon to the left to listen to this article.


What Is Public Record?

The first step toward success in finding information about people or companies begins with understanding what constitutes public record, public information and private information. All types of information fall into one of these three categories, or a fourth that I'll define later. But the classification isn't always clear.

Generally, personal or confidential information is private. A person's Social Security number, date of birth, and medical, financial or insurance information is private. Likewise, confidential company information, such as unpatented formulas, designs or processes, or undisclosed business practices, is private. But researchers should know that private information sometimes becomes public. This means that you might be able to find it out – legally and ethically.

Public records are government records. Generally, real estate records, court records, including bankruptcies, liens and judgments, professional licenses, intellectual property filings and business records, such as business filings, public company filings and UCCs, are public record. There may be exceptions to this rule. For example, juvenile court records generally are not public record.

Federal or state law determines what is public record. Because the laws of the 50 states vary, what is public in one state may not be in another. For example, under Maine law, you may use voter registration records to locate a missing heir. But you may not access the records for this, or any other non-political purpose, in several other states. Similarly, you may search records at courthouses for misdemeanors or felonies, but the state's criminal repository – the agency responsible for maintaining criminal histories – may bar access to official rapsheets.

Staying on the right side of the law requires discovering whether the records you want are public in the relevant jurisdictions. Fortunately, BRB offers several reference works and databases to help you comply.

Information that is not public record is not necessarily private. It may become public information through legitimate or illegal means. If someone reverse engineers a computer program, and then distributes the code via the Internet, it may become public information, albeit unlawfully. If a disgruntled employee shares confidential company information with his prospective employer, the information may become – if not public – an open secret, albeit unethically.

But information might become public through several legitimate means. A person might volunteer it. Those with a public telephone number choose (by accepting a public listing) to publish it. Job seekers frequently post resumés to public forums. Sometimes these job summaries contain sufficient personal information – name, address, phone number and Social Security number – to launch an illicit identity theft business.

Information might become public through observation. In Remsberg v. DocuSearch, the New Hampshire Supreme Court determined that "where a person's work address is readily observable by members of the public, the address cannot be private…."

One of the more common ways private information becomes public, though, is through disclosure in a public record. Bankruptcies and divorce filings typically contain private information, such as bank and credit card account numbers, employment, and the names and ages of minor children. Court records in personal injury litigation may contain detailed medical information. Vehicle accident reports sometimes provide vehicle identification numbers (VIN), license plate numbers and driver's license numbers.

There is another category of information that falls somewhere between public record and public information. BRB authors refer to it as "quasi-public" records, or government records that are accessible with restrictions. Military records fall into this category, as do school records and in some states, worker's compensation records and criminal repository records. Under some circumstances, you can obtain limited information.

Online Public Records Databases

Hundreds of government databases containing public records exist. Resources available at the BRB Web site will help you identify them as well as the many commercial vendors of public records.

There are many regional and specialty (special focus) – and often less expensive – vendors in addition to the well known ChoicePoint Inc., LexisNexis and Acxiom. Keep in mind that these data aggregators mix public record and private information. In light of recent incidents of data theft, they monitor access closely. If you use these services, pay attention to the contract. It governs the circumstances under which you may legally use the databases.

Finding Federal Court Filings

One of my favorite non-commercial sources is the U.S. Party/Case Index. It serves as an index to civil and criminal cases filed in federal courts across the nation. While it doesn't provide access to all federal courts (see "Courts Not on Index" in the main menu), it covers most of them. Access requires registration with PACER.

You may search all available courts simultaneously, certain types of courts (bankruptcy) or individual courts. Coverage varies, but generally extends back to the mid-1990s.

When searching a person or company, run several queries using variations on the name. For example, for personal names, search with and without a middle initial; for company names, search assumed names (fictitious business names or DBAs) as well as corporate names. Also try searching partial names. This approach will help you find as many relevant filings as possible.

Searching for records involving real estate developer Donald Trump illustrates why the strategy is important. If you query the civil index with his middle initial, J, you retrieve almost 70 records. But if the May v. Bucklew (8:00-cv-02079-SDM) case in the Middle District of Florida ultimately proves relevant to the research, you won't find it. For whatever reason, the court indexed the case without Trump's middle initial.

How do you know it’s relevant? Examine some of the documents filed in the case. Document number 13 indicates Trump was served at the address of one of his Florida companies. You may check Florida business filings to confirm that Donald J. Trump is, in fact, a corporate officer.

Of course, confirming the relevancy of all the cases resulting from a broad search will take some time. But then you and I know that finding useful information often demands diligence. Unskilled searchers may get lucky on occasion, but experts know that luck alone won't yield repeated success.

Click the video to watch a 7.5 minute screencast on using the U.S. Party/Case Index.

Finding Signs of Trouble

Another government database I favor is the Excluded Parties List System. EPLS provides information about people and companies barred from receiving federal contracts or federal financial assistance. In addition to active debarments, you can find information about past actions. In fact, searching the database at the start of an investigation might shortcut the research, providing a clue about what to seek or where to find it.

For example, suppose that in running a routine background check on a businessperson, you find an affiliation with the defunct Kansas City pharmacy, Courtney Pharmacy. You check the corporate records to obtain the officers' names and run them through a couple of high quality, low-cost databases such as the U.S. Party/Case Index or EPLS. The strategy holds the costs of the research down while allowing for a more thorough preliminary check.

In running the name of one officer – Robert R. Courtney – through EPLS, you discover that he has been banned indefinitely from doing business with the U.S. government. The address in the record offers a clue as to the reason for the ban. But even if you don't recognize it – it's a federal penitentiary – the information is enough of a red flag to warrant more thorough research regarding the connection with the original research subject.

Finding Clues in Public Filings

A third favorite, EDGAR, provides a useful starting point for finding identifying information about people. The Securities and Exchange Commission's free EDGAR database contains public company filings. An upgrade enabled keyword searching for documents filed during the past four years (recently, enhanced from two years). Previously, you could search only the header information (public company name, address and unique identifier).

The search engine supports both natural language and Boolean searching, but researchers who want to pinpoint specific information will do well to learn the advanced syntax. For example, enclosing a search term in quotations (e.g., "mars") turns off the automatic pluralization. If you want to find mention of the private company, Mars Incorporated, rather than every instance of the word, mar, it's a useful trick to know.

Likewise, capitalizing proper nouns in search terms will improve the relevancy of the search results. This technique is critical when seeking information about someone with a common name. (Note: 27 November 2007. For the past 6 months, I have not noticed a difference in the search results when using the capitalization technique.)

But because the SEC's EDGAR research system limits retrieval to the immediate past four years, going back farther requires the use of a commercial system, such as LivEDGAR.

Suppose a business client asks you to conduct a background check on Donald Trump. She knows what she reads in the news, but she has few identifying details. Since Donald Trump is a businessperson, it makes sense first to query an EDGAR database. You'll find references to him in the body of the filings that reveal useful information, such as his middle initial, business affiliations, business addresses, investments, and more.

In another matter, the client might ask you to locate someone who has a common name. If the individual is a public company executive, you might find additional identifying information, such as age, educational background or previous employment. This information might prove helpful in eliminating others with the same name.

Business researchers also search EDGAR filings for information about private companies. Private companies do not have to disclose their finances or information pertaining to their business. Yet their public company competitors might mention them. Depending on the context, this could be useful information.


Creative searchers likely will discover myriad uses for government databases in people or company research. While you should heed warnings about the limitations of online public records, as explained in several books published by BRB, making wise use of them can hold down the costs of preliminary research. They also can keep you out of trouble with commercial vendors if the need for the information – concern about a daughter's new fiancé, for instance – is out of step with the contract.

The art of conducting public records research takes time and experience to master. This article barely skims the surface of what you should know. But already Sheri Lanza has suckered – ah, convinced – me to write another one. (Part 2)


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Created: 7 March 2006
Revised: 9 May 2008
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/public_records_research.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com