Monday, June 1, 2015

16 Important Things to Know About Court Records

When it comes to how court records are organized, which search methods work best, and how these records can supplement an investigation, there is a lot of information out there. Nearly every private investigators conference has a track on court records, and we hear time and time again that the most reliable and helpful information always come from a trained and experienced private investigator.

16 Important Things You Should Know About Court Records

Below are 16 crucial things investigators should know about court records, how to search them, and how the information can impact your investigation.

1. Court records are one of the most important and underutilized resources in an investigation

Court records don't require any special permission. The beauty of court records is that they are available to anybody. Anybody that knows how to get them can get them.

2. They don't require any special permission

While 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.

3. They are based on factual information

Court 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 will

The 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 access

There 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 courts

Federal 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
State courts handle civil matters like contract disputes, family matters, divorces, and other state-level matters.
I
n order of superiority, state courts include:
  • State Supreme Court
  • Superior Court
  • Special Courts
  • Local Courts
Special courts include tax courts, bankruptcy courts, social security courts, etc.

7. There are 94 district courts in the United States

Most 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) courts

In Texas alone there are 250 counties. With Texas' 250 counties, there are 454 district courts, 254 county courts, 18 probate courts, 917 municipal courts, and 822 justice 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.

There are thousands and thousands of courts out there that potentially house records that might be critical to your investigation. Investigators need to have a general sense as to the number 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 name

When 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 present the same issues, even though the police provide aliases and will log the name listed on the person's identification, misspellings and mistakes happen.

10. Civil court records typically do not have identifying information on the person involved in the suit

While 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 searching

No 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 easier

With 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 courts

These 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


15. Going directly to the court is the most effective place to obtain records, and you can obtain the documents right there

Databases 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. Valuable information in the docket, complaint or indictment, affidavits, final disposition, deposition and transcripts

  • 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

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