How to use public records databases

Over the past few years many state and local government agencies have been moving towards electronic access to their records.  While some of it may be useful in issues stories (i.e.: statistics on health care or water quality or road characteristics), we'll be talking here about databases that can help you track down people, their associates, their assets and their personal histories.  The types of records, what they can provide, and what information you usually need to search by can help you determine what information might help you get what you need.  Some are statewide databases, others are local compilations, for which you would have to search county-by-county to get full coverage.

  • Motor vehicle information: automobile registrations, driver's licenses, accident reports
    • Can provide address, date of birth, driver history, social security number (in some states), physical characteristics of the driver (height, weight, race, sex, need for eyeglasses), type of automobile driven (make, model, year).
    • Need to search by name (sometimes full name is required - sometimes date of birth is also required), driver's license number, VIN (vehicle identification number) or motor vehicle registration number.
  • Secretary of State filings: incorporation records, uniform commercial code filing, limited partnerships
    • Can provide address information, names of business associates and associated businesses, name of company registered agent, address of the business, status of the business, names of debtors and creditors.
    • Need to search by name of officer or business name.
  • Property records: tax appraisals and mortgage filings
    • Can provide name and address of owner, characteristics of the house (sq. ft., no. of rooms), mortgage holder and amount, appraised value, who sold the house and when.
    • Need to search by address of the property, owner or seller's name.
  • Utility records: water and sewer billings
    • Can provide name and address of owner (useful for rented properties), delinquency of payment. (Check your water board members and see how they are doing with their bills!)
    • Need to search by property address, owner's name.
  • Voter registration records
    • Can provide address information, party affiliation, last election they voted.
    • Need to search by name.
  • Marriage / divorce records:
    • Can provide maiden name of bride, dates of marriage - divorce, whether there were previous marriages.
    • Need to search by name.
  • Occupational licenses:
    • Can provide information about business line, address
    • Need to search by name.
  • Civil and criminal court cases / criminal history:
    • Can provide plaintiff and defendant names, lawyers' names, case file numbers (to get the full case record), arrest records.
    • Need to search by name, case number.
  • Other records of interest: concealed weapons permits, boat and aircraft registrations, bankruptcy filings, mortgage default records.


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