On Election Day, it’s useful to remember that Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s famous assertion that “All politics is local” can apply to investigations as well.
When we’re tasked with a public records search, our clients expect that we’ll review federal and state government records. What they may not realize, though, is that an exhaustive public records search also requires digging through local public records, which may be a treasure trove of offline information unavailable elsewhere.
Remember, though: There’s local and then there’s local.
Think of it as gradually smaller geographic circles until you hone in on where the person you’re investigating actually lives or works, and where they’ve lived and worked in the past as well.
Start with the state government. Here folks usually know what to expect:
- Civil and criminal cases;
- In some states, there are publically searchable statewide criminal records and sex offender lists;
- Corporation records filed with the Secretary of State;
- Business and professional licenses, though which businesses are regulated may vary from state to state;
- Personal and corporate liens and judgments, as well as UCC (Uniform Commercial Code) records;
- And, of course, states also track driving violations.
Then there’s the county level. Forty-eight of the 50 states (excluding Connecticut and Rhode Island) have operational county governments. This means that counties are the source of:
- Court records;
- Real estate transaction details;
- Licensing documents and regulatory and inspection records, including fines levied against a business or an individual;
- UCC records and property rolls that might not be found at the state level.
Then there are city records.
- Some cities have their own courts, where there may be records of criminal and civil trials that are unavailable at the county level. In some cases this requires going to the individual municipal courts to find the information.
- Some municipalities also have licensing requirements for local businesses, so corporate information may be available at the city level. For example, while investigating whether or not a government contractor was violating the terms of his agreement with our client and obtaining more work elsewhere, we uncovered a number of companies licensed at the municipal level in Missouri. We researched all of the companies and found that one of them had recently bid on a military contract, violating his terms of employment with our client.
And last but not least, there are town and village records to investigate.
- In many areas of the country, town and village law enforcement and court records are unavailable online, making individual town and village records only accessible in person. A good investigator will go personally or hire a researcher to sift through those records by hand. We have had cases where arrest records for violent crimes and for misdemeanors like shop lifting have only been uncovered through labor-intensive town records searches.