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Database & Public Records Reporting/JOU3121 | News Workshop/JOU 3113



Records are a State of Mind

By Pat Stith

The Raleigh, NC, News & Observer


This is not a list.


What each of us needs is a mindset –not a list– a mindset that says, the information I need

is out there somewhere, and I’m going to find it.


What we’re trying to do here is encourage that mindset. What that caveat, let’s assume we’re trying to background an individual. What information might we be able to find? [Almost all of these examples are public records available for free in North Carolina.Some may not be available in other states or may be available for a fee.]


From the phone book [or CD-ROM directory] we may get a tentative address, phone number and, sometimes, an occupation.


A city directory may give us a second look at their name, their spouse’s name, and both occupations. We may be able to identify their neighbors up and down the street. A crisscross reference directory might tell us how long they’ve live at that address and give us directions to their house. We may also be able to obtain a map and directions from mapquest.com.


An employer will usually verify a person’s employment, how long he’s worked there and, sometimes, give you a salary range.


And why don’t we check the clips, in our own newspaper and across the country.


From their driver license record we can no longer [because of federal law] get their address or date or birth. Or their description – the color of their eyes and hair, and their height and weight. But we can get their driving record, the tickets they have received, whether they were convicted, and the accidents in which they’ve been involved. [The charges could indicate an alcohol or drug problem.] With the driving record we can locate the actual citations and accident reports.


At the Board of Elections we can look at his or her voter registration. We can find out what political party they belong to, how often they have voted, their date of birth, and where they were born.


In the Clerk of Court’s office, we can look at criminal charges and dispositions, when he or she went to jail, how long they stayed there, and who bonded them out. [We ought to check in U.S. District Court too, for federal charges.] We can examine mental warrants. We can check for civil suits involving him or his wife and children, or his company. And we can look at divorce papers.


We can call the state Department of Corrections’ central records section to find out if he ever served time in a state prison. They could tell us the crime, the sentence, the sentencing court, the time served, the parole date, and other data, including how often he got into trouble in prison.


Maybe he’s been a victim of crime. We may be able to find out if his house has been burglarized and, perhaps, what he said when he called 911.


In the Tax Collector’s Office, we could look at her personal and business property tax listings. We could see how much tax she pays and whether she pays on time. We can find out if, under some special provision of the law, [like “use value”, which grants tax breaks to owners of qualifying farms and forests] she has managed to avoid some taxes. We could get a map of the property she owns. And a photograph. We could find out when her house was built, and how it is heated. And whether there’s a pool in the back yard. We can get the number of square feet in the house and the layout of the rooms. This also is a good place to get an unlisted phone number. [There’s a space for the taxpayer’s phone

number, so the Tax Collector’s Office can contact them if it needs to.]


We can find out which state [and, sometimes, local] government agencies have contacted them by phone, by acquiring the state telephone record database.


Later, when we go over to city hall, we can find out how much water he uses. That would be important if we were trying to find out if a candidate for city council actually lived inside the city limits, as he claimed. How could he live there and use no water? While we’re there, we might as well check to see if he owns a pet, and see whether he calls his dog “Spot” or “Devil.”


At the Register of Deeds Office we can find out what property he owns in the county. We can get the names of the seller, the sales price, and how much of that price was financed. We can find out if he has mortgaged his furniture. If he’s doing business under an assumed name, we can get that name.


We can look at his company’s incorporation papers. That would tell us when his or her company was incorporated and the name and address of the registered agent. And the original incorporators, directors, and officers. Current officers also are available from the company’s annual report. We can look at his local business license. If stock in the company is publicly traded, we can find out who owns significant portions of stock, how much key officers are paid, and other information.


Is she wealthy? Or famous?


We can look her up in various Who’s Who publications.


If he is associated with a non-profit, tax-exempt foundation we can look at its federal tax return, called a Form 990. That may give us his salary. If he is involved in soliciting charitable contributions, we can look his organization’s annual audit and at records of each fundraiser.


We can examine his political contributions and military discharge record. And we can find out what he did [or didn’t do] to earn the medals he claims.


We can look at building permits for her home or business and the building inspection reports on her property, together with any zoning changes.


If he’s moved recently, the U.S. Post Office will give us the forwarding address he left so Mom’s letters don’t get lost.


We may be able to find out if she owns a boat or a plane, and get descriptions. We can look at the repair records on the plane. We can find out if she’s a licensed pilot and what kind of license she holds. If we see her in an airplane and can get the “N” number off the wing, we can find out who owns it.


We may be able to find out how much money his Papa left him and whether he actually graduated from the college he claims, the year and what degree he has. If he has an advanced degree, his thesis also may be a public record.


And don’t forget the college [and high school] yearbooks.


We can find out whether he has a pistol permit.


If he’s ever gone through bankruptcy, those records will be open to us. If he’s failed to pay his debt to the IRS, we can get a copy of the lien.


If he’s a state employee we can get his salary. We can find out how long he has worked for the state and exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. And his age. We can examine his phone records, his travel records and, if he’s a top official, his ethics statement. We may be able to track his movement around the state, and the nation, by obtaining records of calls made on his state telephone credit card or cell phone. We can find out where he went, day by day, in his state car. We can even find out if the public has complained about the way he drives it. And we can look at the audit report on his unit and see if he’s mentioned.


There’s much more on record if the person works for a firm regulated by the state or federal government, including bondsmen, day care operators, rest and nursing home owners, cemeterians, funeral home directors, private detectives, charity fund operators, automobile dealers, highway contractors, insurance agents, mobile home haulers, or builders of low income government subsidized housing.


If she is an attorney we may be able to get background from the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, including the names and biographical sketches of her and her partners and her firm’s major clients. And we can get the firm’s rating, too.


In some states we can check worker compensation claims, and in some, including North Carolina, welfare payments.


Does his firm sell to the city or state? Then we can find out what he sells and at what price, and whether he won the contract competitively or whether it was sole sourced.

If he’s obtained a SBA loan, or tried to, we can get those documents.


We can see how many parking tickets he’s been given, and whether he’s paid them.


We may be able to find out when and where he had his car inspected, and how many service stations he went to before somebody finally passed it.


We might be able to get the traffic count in front of his house, the pollution level in the creek behind it, the safety rating on the bridge at the end of his street.


We might get a topo map of her property and maps of the storm sewer line into her manufacturing plant. Depending on the nature of her business, there are OSHA inspection reports, fire inspection reports, beer and wine licenses, and employee political action fund reports. We also can find out whether her company guards have been deputized.


We can see his birth certificate, marriage certificate, death certificate, and we can read his will. And, if he died in an accident or was killed or committed suicide, or died under mysterious circumstances, we can get a copy of his autopsy report.


Is that everything?


Of course not.


From your own experience, you could add to these suggestions. But we don’t need a list, we need a mindset: the information I need is out there somewhere, and I’m going to find it.




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