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Finding FREE public information during an investigation Part I

1 June 2011

There are myriad reasons for conducting your own investigation: suppose you want to check out a future employer or employee? Or let’s say you’d like to investigate a particular piece of property — to find out whether a bothersome neighbor owns or rents the house next door, how much someone’s house is worth — or even find out if a prospective date has a criminal record. There are many ways extant where you can locate free, publicly available information legally. Let’s examine some of them.

Please note that all tips in this article relate to legally and publicly available information. You are not being encouraged to conduct investigations of any kind. In Texas and in most, if not all, states, investigators must be licensed. The following links are provided for informational purposes only and are available to anyone.

(If you’re interested in becoming a licensed investigator in Texas, go here, or Google the requirements for an investigator’s license in your state.)

I use Texas in general (and Harris County in particular) by way of examples because it’s the jurisdiction(s) with which I am most familiar, but keep in mind these tips will apply to almost any area. Just Google your state or county for the same type of information. I’m also including some national resources.

To search for sex offenders by name or zip code, you can go to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s official web site and look. Nationally, try the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW), which is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice, and is a cooperative effort between jurisdictions hosting public sex offender registries and the federal government. The service is free of charge to the public. Jurisdictions include all 50 states, U.S. Territories, the District of Columbia, and participating tribes.

Following are several helpful quick links to search for public information:

To locate assumed names, who owns a business, or a DBA, click the link below.

Harris County Assumed names / DBAs (Doing Business As)

Or search your state’s county or secretary of state website for “assumed names” or “doing business as.” Try the corporations section of your secretary of state’s site for information on various corporations.

For more personal info, such as marriage and divorce records (all public!), click the link below.

Harris County marriage licenses
Harris County public records, including civil, family, criminal, and historical 

For example, to search for criminal records, click here, then click the “criminal” tab, then enter the person’s name or any other identifying information.

Harris County vital statistics (birth/death)
National vital statistics

Harris County real property records

Did you know wills and most probate records are public documents?

Harris County probate records
Fort Bend County probate records, civil records, court calendar

Or simply search your county for probate records–they are there!

Search for Harris County conflicts of interest

Search for federal litigation or check who might be in federal litigaiton on PACER. You can also check public bankruptcy records here! For a national listing of foreclosures, try this database.

To search for attorney information at the State Bar of Texas website, go here and enter the attorney’s name, bar number, or other identifying information on the right hand of the site about halfway down. (All attorneys in Texas are licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas and will be listed here. Legislation was passed in 1939 making membership in SBOT mandatory; SBOT therefore serves as an administrative agency of the state’s judicial branch.)

Nationally, you can check out attorneys at the American Bar Association, Martindale Hubbell, or on www.FindLaw.com.

Remember that most professionals must be licensed to practice their profession in their state (eg: lawyers, doctors, even nail technicians in most states!) so you can find a wealth of information–including any disciplinary action(s)–at these licensing organizations. More on that in part II.

Of course, Google should always be your #1 friend. And you’d be amazed what you can find out by searching someone’s Facebook page and other social media uses.

Or try a Google search for your state, county, or city for the same general topic you are looking for—most jurisdictions provide this type of information online now. (I’d like to personally thank Harris County’s previous District Clerk Loren Jackson for putting just about everything online, making it easily accessible by the general public, not to mention efficient!)

And if you can’t locate what you need online, consider the Freedom of Information Act. In most cases, you are allowed to formally request–and receive–information from various entitites. There is just a relatively short list of exceptions, such as:

  • Records classified national defense or foreign policy materials, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1);
  • Internal personnel rules and agency practices, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(2);
  • Information specifically exempted from disclosure by another statute, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3);
  • Trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential, 5 U.S.C § 552(b)(4);
  • Inter- or intra-agency memoranda or letters which would not be available to a party in litigation with the agency, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5);
  • Personnel, medical and similar files, disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6);
  • Records compiled for law enforcement purposes, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7);
  • Records relating to the examination, operations, or condition of financial institutions, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(8); and
  • Oil well data, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (b)(9).

Even if a record falls within one of these FOIA exemptions, the records may, in some circumstances, still be released, depending on the pertinent exemption and the circumstances of the FOIA request.

But more on that in Part II…

My favorite fee-based search databases are www.publicdata.com and Accurint.com. (Restrictions on usage may apply.) <<–Note I wrote “FEE based.”

Please also note that most health information is necessarily federally protected by HIPAA, as is most credit and Social Security info.

Please see Part II in this series.

Don’t see what you need? Shoot me an email and ask! LegallyBlog@yahoo.com.

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Sami K. Hartsfield, ACP is a freelance writer and plaintiff’s litigation paralegal in Houston. She holds a degree in paralegal studies with a 4.0 GPA and a bachelor of science degree in political science, graduating summa cum laude. Sami interned with Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals under Chief Justice Adele Hedges, and completed the University of Houston Law Center’s Summer 2008 Prelaw Institute. She is preparing to enter law school in the fall and holds a national advanced paralegal certification as well as six specialty certifications: Discovery; Trial Practice; Contracts Management; Individual & Entity Medical Liability; and Social Security Disability Law. You can find her on Facebook, and e-mail her with questions, comments, or ideas at LegallyBlog@yahoo.com.

Sami Hartsfield

  

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 Copyright 2011 Sami K. Hartsfield – All Rights Reserved

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