I. Overview of Topic
We have compiled what is probably the Web's most complete resource for State & County Public Record Information -- several hundred pages of updated State and County addresses, phone numbers, and links. To view this resource, click here.
Public records in the U.S. constitute a truly vast reservoir of information, but one that has been quite remote and hard to access for most people in the past. Why? -- because these billions of records used to be available only at county courthouses and state and federal agencies. In other words, you had to physically hoof it over to your local courthouse and search in person for the public records you needed, whether they were real estate records, litigation records, corporate records, or whatever. What a headache!
The Internet has changed all that. Now you can sit at your home or office computer and gain access to public records online - at just about any agency or courthouse -- in the country. Now, I am not saying that all public records are presently available online. But a great many are, and those that aren't can often be accessed with a phone call to the County Clerk or Recorder's Office.
Before you get too excited, though, first take a look at the specific types of public records online we're talking about.
Here are some of the types of government records you have a right to view free of charge:
At the State level...
- Corporation Records
- Criminal Records
- Federal Tax Liens
- Fictitious or Assumed Names
- Incarceration Records
- Limited Liability Company Records
- Limited Partnership Records
- State Tax Liens
- Trademark, Trade Name
- Uniform Commercial Code Filings
- Vessel Records
- Workers' Compensation Records
- Sales Tax Registrations
- Vehicle & Ownership Records
- Death Records
- Sexual Offender Records
- Divorce Records
- Marriage Records
- State Investigated Accident Reports
- Birth Records
- Driver Records
- Some Types of Occupational Licenses
At the County Level...
- Uniform Commercial Code records (also available at State level)
- Tax Liens (also available at State level)
- Real Estate and Tax Assessor records
- County Court Records (both civil and criminal)
- Voter Registrations (accessibility varies)
- Vital Records (also available at State level)
At the Federal Level...
- Federal Court Records
- EDGAR Corporate Filings
- Military Records
- Bankruptcy Records
- A vast amount of demographic/economic/regulatory data available through Federal agency websites
The above lists are not exhaustive but merely hint at the types and quantity of public records online you can access for free. So why would you want to? A few good reasons come to mind, such as: background checks on potential business associates; research pertaining to investments; trademarks/patents research; real estate investment due diligence; determining a boyfriend's or girlfriend's true marital status; people searching; determining a potential partner's financial viability; determining whether a professional person's license is in good standing; finding out if a supplier has been sued; and many more.
Public Records Basics
It's important to understand there's a difference between public records and publicly-available information. The term "public records" pertains mainly to records maintained by government agencies that are freely available to the public, like real estate records and bankruptcy records. On the other hand your phone book contains "publicly-available" information. Generally, this is information people have chosen to allow to be publicly-accessed, even though they don't have to. If you want your address and phone number to remain private, you can refuse to let it be published in a phone book. But with public record info, you really don't have a choice - the government makes it public, period.
Similarly, notice that some information is always private, like medical records and credit information. You can't go onto a government website and find out if somebody has certain medical or psychiatric problems, and you can't get a copy of their credit report without their written consent. To do so violates the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which Uncle Sam, by the way, takes very seriously. Even if you find an online information broker who promises to provide you with somebody's private information, you're wise to pass. Remember how much trouble Patricia Dunn, the chairperson of Hewlett-Packard, got herself into a few years ago by hiring a hotshot private eye to look into boardroom leaks, which involved investigating the personal lives of HP's board members? You don't need that kind of trouble.
So it's very important to understand the difference between public and private information, and there's also one other point to be aware of: jurisdictions (counties and states) are not uniform in their regulations regarding access to records. For example, in some states you can access people's driving records with relative ease (Colorado); in others you can't (California). Some states regard criminal records as public (Texas); others don't (Massachusetts). You have to adhere to the regulations of the jurisdiction where you're accessing the records.
How to Access Public Records Online
As I said, many jurisdictions haven't yet computerized their public records - particularly the smaller rural counties. So you can't access their public records online but you can at least get their phone numbers online and give them a call. Oftentimes county clerks will run searches for you while you wait on the phone. To get county courthouse telephone numbers, click here. Of course you can probably just put the county's name into Google and get the phone number, too.
By the way, there may be a small search fee, and/or a small copying fee, but these will be modest - public record information is free unless you hire a professional document retriever to visit the agency or courthouse to access it for you. If you want to look into this possibility, visit brbpub.com.
Note that in Part II of this Guide (below) I'll suggest portal websites which you can use to access online public records throughout the U.S.
Following are thumbnail instructions for accessing public records online by broad categories:
These are largely concentrated in the Secretary of State's office. For example you might need to know if a given company is incorporated or the date of incorporation, or who the officers and directors are. Or you might need information on a limited liability company, a partnership, or a trade name, or on sales tax registrations.
For SEC & other financial data, and for information pertaining to bankruptcies or patents and copyrights, you need to search at the federal level.
For information pertaining to UCC's, mortgages, tax liens, and real estate, you need to focus on the county or local (city) level - most often, the county level.
Criminal records access presents a real challenge in the U.S. (though it's much easier here than almost anywhere else in the world!)
On the one hand, governments want to give you criminal record information so you can avoid hiring or doing business with criminals; on the other hand, they don't want to give you criminal record information because then you won't hire or do business with ex-convicts, who then will be motivated to commit more crimes in order to survive.
So it seems they compromise by making the information hard to get (or more likely, bureaucracy dictates that the process can not be streamlined and made reasonably efficient). So we find there is no single nationwide repository of criminal records in the U.S. except the FBI's National Crime Information Center, which is available only to police organizations. Criminal record information is maintained on a strictly piecemeal, jurisdictional basis. Thus if your subject resides in Colorado, you can run a statewide criminal records search there, and he/she may come up clean - but in fact be a convicted felon in Indiana. Unless you also check Indiana, you'll never know this.
As a result, I believe this is a type of public records online search best left to the pros. You can't realistically check every state. And for that matter, most states won't give you the information anyway, so you'll have to check at the county level. For criminal records searching I recommend you hire an information professional specializing in this kind of search, such as Intelius or US Search.com.
What about civil litigation? This can get complicated, because cases can fall under county, state, or federal law. And of course municipalities also have courts.
If you're looking for federal cases - most of which are tried in U.S. District Courts - start with the U.S. Party/Case Index. This is a national index for U.S. District, bankruptcy and appellate courts. If, using this index, you determine your subject is involved in federal litigation, you may be able to access docket information online using PACER (provided the litigation is current or recent). Older case documents are maintained by the various Federal courts or transferred to the Federal Records Center.
At the state level, online searching is largely limited to the courts' docket sheets (case histories). Today, many state courts provide Internet access to their dockets. For detailed information on state-by-state availability, visit brbpub.com or see Public Records Online, published by Facts on Demand Press.
Marriage/divorce records: our company, Washington Research Associates, Inc., has developed a free ebook which lists virtually every online source for researching someone's marital status. You can download it at http://e-backgroundcheck-secure.com/ebooks/free-ebook.php.
Recording Office Records
Your county (or city) recording office has amazingly complete information on just about every piece of real estate in the county - sale prices, mortgages, liens, property descriptions, improvements, etc - and this is all public info. Recording office data is now widely available on the Internet. A good source is netronline.com. Incidentally, for all the latest news about your county or any county of interest, try visiting naco.org.
U.S. Government Portals
Washington Research Associates has also put together a very extensive list of the best governmental portals for accessing public records online and other types of publicly-available information. Oftentimes, the fastest, easiest way to search the Web is to find a website portal which deals with your specific topic of interest. Our guide to website portals can be accessed at: http://websearchguides.com/directories.htm
That's it - our ten minutes are up! (OK, maybe twelve or thirteen if you're a slow reader.) Below is a listing of Web resources to help you continue your research on public records online.
PLEASE GIVE US A "LIKE" AT TOP OF PAGE -- THANK YOU!
II. For Additional Research
There are numerous gateways to public records online. The most extensive by far is SearchSystems.net. This huge site covers just about every conceivable category of public records: criminal records, bankruptcies, civil judgments, tax liens, corporate filings, inmates, offenders, professional licenses, property, UCC's, vital records, campaign contributions, etc. For each state, links to hundreds of governmental public records sites are provided. The site can be searched for free, or you can sign up for its DirecPass service, which provides expedited access (the "free" access is, frankly, sluggish).
BRB Publications specializes in public records online information and their website is one of the very best guides anywhere to accessing public records. They provide state-by-state and county-by-county links to thousands of government sites, and their list of occupational licensing authorities is the best available on the Web. In addition, they offer free access to a local public record retriever database and a public record vendor database. Check out their BRB Bookstore to learn about their public records publications, especially the industry-standard "Sourcebook to Public Record Information", now in its 10th edition."
State & County Public Records
As indicated previously Washington Research Associates (that's us) has put together a comprehensive list of governmental public records and state/county addresses and phone numbers. It's organized in a way that makes it easy to search for the agency or government website you're looking for by either state or county. Hundreds of hours have gone into compiling this list and we think it's one of the better governmental public records resources around. To access the information, click here. Don't forget to bookmark it!
Sourcebook to Public Records Information - 10th Ed.
This huge directory is the bible of the public records industry. It provides detailed tutorials and listings of every online and offline source of public records available in the U.S. Highly recommended if you need to access public records on an ongoing basis. Click first banner below (under "Recommended Reading") for more information or to order from Amazon (be sure you get the current edition, which is the 10th).
Related Web Search Guides
Other Web Search Guides you might find useful: