1. Court records are one of the most important and underutilized resources in an investigation"Court records don't require any special permission," investigator Brian Willingham says. "The beauty of court records is that they are available to anybody. "
2. They don't require any special permissionWhile investigators who work with corporate entities may have access to emails or human resources files, and police officers will have access to certain information and the FBI even further details, court records are available to anybody who knows how to get access to them. "The beauty of court records is that they are available to anybody," investigator Brian Willingham says, "Anybody that knows how to get them can get them."
3. They are based on factual informationCourt records provide documentation of allegations, proceedings, sworn statements, and affidavits taken under oath.
4. They paint a different picture of a person than interviews with associates willThe documents that you have in court records will provide insight as to whether they have been involved in litigation or are a convicted criminal. This can add a different layer of insight about a person or individual.
5. Court records provide millions of data points for you to accessThere are 150 million cases filed each year in U.S. courts. While many of these are traffic violations, small claims disputes, and other minor cases that wouldn't be critical for most investigations.
6. In simplest terms, there are two separate areas of courts: federal courts and state courtsFederal courts handle cases like immigration law, bankruptcy law, social security law, patent law, and other federal laws that are being broken. Federal courts include the below courts (in order of superiority).
- U.S. Supreme Court
- U.S. Court of Appeals
- Special Courts
- U.S. District Court
Image credit: http://i-sight.com/resources/webinar-an-investigators-guide-to-searching-court-recordsState courts handle civil matters like contract disputes, family matters, divorces, and other state-level matters. In order of superiority, state courts include . . .
- State Supreme Court
- Superior Court
- Special Courts
- Local Courts
Image credit: http://i-sight.com/resources/webinar-an-investigators-guide-to-searching-court-recordsSpecial courts would include tax courts, bankruptcy courts, social security courts, etc.
7. There are 94 district courts in the United StatesMost states only have one court, but some have more. California, for example, has four different federal courts.
8. There are over 3,000 county or county-equivalent (borough, parish) state courtsIn Texas alone there are 250 counties. Even within all of these counties, there is usually one court per county, and then regional courts. In New York, there are 62 counties, and within those counties there are 62 county courts, 62 family courts, 62 surrogates courts, 79 city courts, and 1,487 town and village courts. With Texas' 254 counties, there are 454 district courts, 254 county courts, 18 probate courts, 917 municipal courts, and 822 justice courts. "There are thousands and thousands of courts out there that can potentially house records that might be critical to your investigation," Brian Willingham says. "The idea here is that you want to get a general sense as to the amount of courts that are out there, what you can do to access them, where would the information be that would be relevant to your investigation."
9. Having all known names and aliases is better than having just the birth nameWhen it comes to researching databases, the information was entered in by a human being, which means there can be a mistake. With nicknames, maiden names, and birth names, a civil suit may initially be filed under a different name. Having the accurate name before getting started can save time. Criminal records don't present the same issue, as the police generally provide aliases and will log the name listed on the person's identification.
10. Civil court records typically do not have identifying information on the person involved in the suitWhile you will have the name, within the lawsuit the date of birth, social security number, or address will likely not be included. This is problematic especially for common names. Criminal records typically include identifying information (i.e. date of birth).
11. Many courts have their own websites, but you need to understand what you're searchingNo matter what database you are searching, you need to understand what is covered by that search, including what types of cases and what dates.
12. Using resources that search the same sources will make finding mistakes and omissions easierWith databases sourced by entries entered by humans, there is a margin of error. This can also help when databases are picky about how names or information needs to be entered in for a search. If you search in multiple databases, it can clue you into mistakes, omissions, and incorrect information.
13. You can find court records on state or federal repositories, court websites, third party databases, and at the physical courtsThese are some of the main resources for finding court records. It's highly recommended to search through other databases to make sure there are no omissions, and to pull the record at the court to verify validity.
14. There are 24 states in the U.S. where you can obtain a statewide criminal record check
Image credit: http://i-sight.com/resources/webinar-an-investigators-guide-to-searching-court-records
15. Going directly to the court is the most effective place to obtain records, and you can obtain the documents right thereDatabases offer great information on whether a court case exists, but to pull the actual court filings you have to go directly to the court.
16. You can look for valuable information in the docket, complaint or indictment, affidavits, final disposition, and deposition and transcriptsCourt documents are overflowing with information, but knowing where to look for the information you need can be helpful.
- Docket: basic information, chronological order of all details of the case
- Complaint or Indictment: initial information and allegations
- Affidavits: information on the case
- Depositions and Transcripts: sworn testimony, legal arguments
- Final Disposition: how the case ended, charges, pleas
Tips for Searching Court RecordsBelow are some great tips for searching court records from members of the Investigator Marketing group on LinkedIn.
My idea is going right to the court where the records are kept in person or via the Internet. Here in New York City some records have to be ordered and when they are obtained from a warehouse you are contacted to go see them. This at times takes up to 60 days for the call to be made to you.
Jimmy Alvarez, President at J & J Investigations
Since I regularly deliver records to courthouses I usually do my searches right there since they are a matter of public record as opposed to going online where they do have search engines if you are willing to pay annual fees.
Karen Maccini, Private Investigator
Rule of thumb for the best way to check for court records is to go right the source - the court house, state police, etc. Steer clear of court checks claiming to be "nationwide" because that does not exist. It is a good supplement but they only include court searches that are available online. Not every county, state, and federal court is available online. Learn the court system and divisions and what records they hold (and what those records mean) - superior vs district vs magistrate; felony vs misdemeanor; civil lawsuit vs civil judgment, etc.
Kayla Boorady (Ricciardi), Vice President of Corporate Resolutions, Inc.
Know exactly what you are looking for before you go to the courthouse. Make sure the court is open that day. There are many different courts and locations of these courts. Bring cash and change for parking and a checkbook for paying for the records. Allow enough time as lines are common. Research in courthouses can be time consuming and results may be slow. Make sure you hire the right investigator to do the work. Try to get what you can online and make sure the client is aware of the costs for in person searches.
Terrence Green, Owner of New World Investigations
Editor's Note: If you would like more information on this topic, check out the webinar presented by Brian Willingham of Diligentia Group, a PInow Top Investigator on Twitter and Top Blogger. We highly recommend watching the complete webinar for more details and guidance. You can access it here: http://i-sight.com/resources/webinar-an-investigators-guide-to-searching-court-records/.