How Public Are Public Records?

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The term "public record" has always been VERY misleading. Even though a record is "public" and available for public scrutiny in the strictest sense, in reality it may not be readily available. The availability of numerous public records via the Internet has addressed some of the accessibility issues, but just as it's always been in the "offline" world, access to free public records via the web is a hit or miss proposition.

What's available varies greatly from state to state, with many states differing greatly on what is and is not considered "public". For example, until recently some states, such as Tennessee, considered driving records to be "public" while others, such as California, did not. The US Supreme Court recently ruled (docket number 98-1464, decided January 12, 2000) that driving records are not "public" records, and therefore will only be available on a VERY limited basis in every state.

Some states, such as Florida (http://www.dos.state.fl.us/), not only have a plethora of free public record information on the web (such as UCCs, trademark owner names, corporate records and annual reports), they also provide the actual images of the full public record.

Even when information is considered "public," agencies still may not provide free Web access to the information. In these instances, we're no better off than we were 10 years ago, and are forced to use either to a fee-based commercial database, messengers or "snail mail".

FREE PUBLIC RECORDS META-SITES

For an excellent low-cost meta-site that lists which states do provide free public records via the Web, go to Search Systems at http://www.searchsystems.net, which provides links to those states. From Search Systems you can view information about the New York State Department of Health's Physician Discipline page at http://www.health.state.ny.us/nysdoh/opmc/main.htm, the Texas state Comptroller's Corporations Search at https://ourcpa.cpa.state.tx.us/coa/Index.html, and Nevada bankruptcies at http://www.nvb.uscourts.gov/, among numerous other links. Clicking on the links to any of the thousands of resources in SearchSystems' collection is once again free.

The California list provides links to public records such as a database of which insurance companies are admitted to do business in California (along with complaint information), the Unclaimed Property database and the docket sheet and actual documents from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, S.D. Another useful meta-site that is maintained by BRB Publications contains links to more than 300 local, state and federal websites at http://www.brbpub.com/pubrecsites.asp. These include vital statistics in Colorado (http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/certs/) and death certificates in Maine (http://portal.maine.gov/death) and Kentucky (http://ukcc.uky.edu:80/~vitalrec/), as well as corporate records (California's Secretary of State added its corporate records in late 1999 at http://kepler.sos.ca.gov/) and select county assessor records of numerous states.

MEDICAL LICENSES

For free public access to professionals' licensing records (such as doctors and lawyers), many states, like Florida (https://www.myfloridalicense.com/wl11.asp) and California (http://www2.dca.ca.gov/pls/wllpub/wllquery$.startup), offer access to all their licensing boards from one central page. You can link to professional license information on all 50 states from Search Systems at http://www.searchsystems.net.

To verify medical licenses, you can also check AIM's DocFinder site at http://www.docboard.org/, which links to many states' medical licensing boards. Click on "California" or go directly to the California state agency that licenses doctors by typing in http://www.mbc.ca.gov/.

To locate more public information about doctors, check their associations' web site to discover what type of information is available (in addition to licensing information), such as disciplinary or biographical information. The American Medical Association is at http://www.ama-assn.org/; the Texas Medical Association is at http://www.texmed.org/; and if you're looking for a list of medical associations in Haiti, you'll find it at http://www.haitimedical.com/aso.htm.

Links to other select medical associations can be found at http://dir.yahoo.com/Health/Medicine/Organizations/Professional/ Medical_Associations_and_Societies/.

LAWYER LICENSING

Most state bar association websites can verify whether an attorney is licensed in that state. In California, check the California State Bar's Member Records Search at http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/MemberSearch/QuickSearch#searchlink. History of disciplinary information, if any, is also noted. In Texas go to http://www.texasbar.com/Template.cfm?Section=Member_Directory&Template=/CustomSource/MemberDirectory/Search_Form_Client_Main.cfm. Or in Florida try http://www.floridabar.org/names.nsf/MESearch?OpenForm. FindLaw lists links to the bar Associations of all 50 states at http://www.findlaw.com/06associations/state.html. However, many states do not have mandatory Bar membership for attorneys. In those states, the actual licensing is handled by a state (or quasi-state) agency or an arm of the courts. To help make it easier to locate the lawyer licensing bodies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, we have compiled this list of links directly to the searchable databases of licensed attorneys in those jurisdictions.

OTHER LICENSED PROFESSIONS

There are a number of other professions, from cosmetologists to funeral directors that are licensed and regulated in various states. Here, too, Search Systems at http://www.searchsystems.net can be a very helpful resource, offering links to various licensing board sites in all 50 states. Some of the hundreds of available categories include Colorado architect licensing at https://www.colorado.gov/dora/licensing/Lookup/LicenseLookup.aspx, Georgia auctioneers at https://secure.sos.state.ga.us/myverification/, New York state interior designers at http://www.op.nysed.gov/opsearches.htm, and a searchable directory of Arizona Accountants.

Information on all licensed professions in California (from Funeral Directors to Repossession Agencies) can be accessed at http://www2.dca.ca.gov/pls/wllpub/wllquery$.startup.

Search the American Institute of Architects membership at http://www.aia.org/. Select "Connect with an Architect" on the homepage. The site does not allow you to input an architect's name directly, but you can retrieve a list of members geographically (by major city) or using their firm's name.

A database of 1.5 million non-profit professional associations may also be searched to obtain information about professionals at http://www.guidestar.org/search.

CRIMINAL RECORDS

Wonder if your new neighbor is a sex offender? At http://www.prevent-abuse-now.com/register.htm, you can link to the offender registries of all 50 state law enforcement agencies and the District of Columbia. In addition to the offender databases, the site also links to the sex offender "registry laws" in those jurisdictions. At http://www.nsopw.gov/Core/Conditions.aspx, the U.S. Department of Justice has created a combined search of the sex offender databases of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Individual states sex offender databases include the Illinois State Police's "Sex Offender Information" page at http://www.isp.state.il.us/sor/sor.cfm, which allows searching by city, county and zip code. For the New York state sex offender registry, see http://criminaljustice.state.ny.us/nsor/.

In more examples of the debate of what constitutes a "public" record and what does not, Texas provides free access to its sex offender database, but charges a fee to access its database of other convictions (http://records.txdps.state.tx.us/), and Oklahoma's database of sex offenders is made available at http://docapp8.doc.state.ok.us/.

North Carolina makes some criminal offender information available at http://www.doc.state.nc.us/offenders/. The searchable database includes information regarding "inmates, probationers or parolees since 1972. [The] system allows users to view and download any/all public information from the Department of Correction database for convicted offenders. [It a]lso includes information on inmate releases and escapees." Vermont (http://vsp.vermont.gov/about_us/divisions/support_services/public_information) only makes its criminal records available to non-law enforcement entities if they obtain a VCIC [Vermont Criminal Information Center] Release Form signed by the subject.

If you want to see a list and pictures of Illinois' most delinquent parents, then go to http://www.deadbeatsillinois.com/ or visit the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department at http://www.la-sheriff.org/lasd_wanted/index.html to see its Most Wanted criminals. You'll find Arizona's at http://www.azdps.gov/about/Task_Forces/Wanted/

The FBI's Ten Most Wanted list can be found at http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/topten.

COUNTY RECORDS

What's available at the county level? Need birth, death or marriage records? Los Angeles County and Orange County, California do not provide this data on the web. Instead, the Los Angeles site at http://www.lavote.net/recorder/BDM_Records.cfm provides detailed information on how to order these records by mail and provides the required forms. In Orange County, California, things move more quickly, for a small price, however. At the County Clerk's site at https://media.ocgov.com/gov/clerk/services/records/default.asp you are informed that you can order certified copies of birth, marriage and death certificates.

To check what type of information and documents that the counties in your state provide online, check FindLaw's links to all 50 states websites at http://www.findlaw.com/11stategov/index.html or Search Systems at http://www.searchsystems.net.

If someone has taken the time to make a social security claim for death benefits, the death record will be found in Rootsweb.com at http://ssdi.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/ssdi.cgi.the Social Security Death Index. Most free sources have discontinued access to updated versions of the Index, but the FamilySearch.org site still makes a version that was last updated on October 31, 2011 available at https://familysearch.org/search/collection/show#uri=http://hr-search-api:8080/searchapi/search/collection/1202535.

REAL PROPERTY RECORDS

Are you trying to trace the other spouse's assets for a divorce client? The Univerity of Virginia's Portico portal site at http://www.indorgs.virginia.edu/portico/assessors.html links to many county assessors' offices that are on the web and permit owner name or address searches. In California, only eight counties will be found. The Los Angeles (CA) County Assessor's records are available and searchable via the Internet (by address only) at http://lacountyassessor.com/extranet/default.aspx. Also see http://lacountyassessor.com/extranet/Outsidesales/saleintr.aspx for information on renting or buying the records. In Orange County, California you can't even make a request over the Internet for property appraisal records, while in Orange County, Florida, the records are available free on the web.

If your county does not place its records on the Web, you may be able to find some limited home value and/or sales information at Domania (http://www.domania.com) or Zillow (http://www.zillow.com). These sites aggregate public information from multiple sources.

MILITARY RECORDS

Some personal information from U.S. Military records is available to the public, without authorization from the veteran. This includes name, rank, service number, dates of service and medals awarded. If the service person is dead, the place of birth, place of death and location of burial may also be available. No information is available via the Internet, however. Requests must be made in writing. For more information see the National Archives and Records Administration's National Personnel Records Center at http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/index.html.

That said however, there is a strong possibility that the record you want no longer exists, after a major 1973 fire that destroyed millions of U.S. Military service records. It's estimated that 80% of all U.S. Army files for personnel discharged between November 1, 1912, and January 1, 1960, as well as records for approximately 75% of U.S. Air Force personnel discharged between September 25, 1947 and January 1, 1964 (with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.) were destroyed. It does not appear that Navy or Marine records were affected.

Personnel records of living civilian personnel are not available to the public.

OTHER RECORDS FROM COMMERCIAL DATABASES

For access to public records such as state corporate and limited partnership records, UCCs, liens, judgments, bankruptcy records, aircraft, watercraft and stock ownership, death records and lawsuits, that you did not find in any of the sources previously listed, you will have to use a commercial database.

Fortunately, many commercial databases are available on the Web and you can pay as you go without subscribing in advance or installing their software on your computer. Some of these databases are: Westlaw at http://www.westlaw.com, Lexis at http://www.lexis.com/xchange and Choice Point (formerly CDB Infotek and now a LexisNexis company) at http://www.choicepoint.com/. KnowX at http://www.knowx.com (previously acquired by ChoicePoint and now also a LexisNexis company) is one of the fee-based public record web sites that offers per-search pricing, as well as 24-hour, 30-day, and annual subscriptions. Registration with a credit card is required. Per-search charges range from $1.50 - $24.95. Thirty-day subscriptions range from $59.95 to $124.95.

The volume and diversity of public records available for free on the Internet is truly astounding, particularly in light of the fact that most of this information has only recently been placed on the Web. Despite the widespread availability of information on the Internet, for the near-term at least, it remains a hit or miss proposition whether the specific information you might be looking for will be available. Even though new information is added to the Internet, literally, every day, that doesn't do you any good, if the material you're looking for isn't available yet.

It will still be awhile before the public has access to all "public" records from our computer desktops. In the mean time, there are still the old stand-bys like the phone, mail and commercial databases available to access this information. They'll still cost you, but the good news is, in most instances, will cost much less now than it used to.

PUBLIC RECORDS META-SITES

EXAMPLES OF AVAILABLE PUBLIC RECORD INFORMATION

MEDICAL LICENSES

LAWYER LICENSING

OTHER LICENSED PROFESSIONS

CRIMINAL RECORDS

SEX OFFENDERS

DELINQUENT PARENTS

COUNTY RECORDS

REAL PROPERTY RECORDS

MILITARY RECORDS

OTHER PUBLIC RECORDS FROM COMMERCIAL DATABASES

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