Due diligence in preparing for trials has always included researching both the relevant legal facts and personal facts relating to opposing parties, key witnesses, and even your own clients. However, before the Internet, it was difficult to research divorces, bankruptcies, property ownership, education, employment history, criminal convictions, prior litigation, and other information people traditionally kept private. Today however, free and fee-based databases make it a lot easier for lawyers to discover ostensibly personal information which is actually in the public domain. As a result, this article will cover the best individual sites and data aggregators for investigating the opposition, witnesses for both sides, and your own clients.
To quickly confirm an address, phone number, or email, lawyers might initially try a good search engine such as Google or Yahoo, or even a small handful of free online directories. Blogs and social networking, sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr can be gold mines of information that people post about themselves without thinking.
Lawyers can search relevant state court dockets individually for marriages, divorces, foreclosures, and civil and criminal litigation, and name changes are searchable at the Cuyahoga Probate Court’s web site. For federal cases, PACER’s name search is the gateway to civil, criminal, appellate, and bankruptcy cases. An easy method for searching numerous courts together is an online docket database on Lexis, Westlaw or Bloomberg. Make sure to check their verdict and settlement databases as well.
The Ohio Department of Corrections maintains an online gateway for information about offenders who are currently incarcerated, registered sex offenders, and parole violators at large. Vinelink.com also offers a statewide offender search by name or offender identification number. In addition, the Ohio Attorney General (AG) and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff both maintain sex offender registries. Nationally, the Federal Bureau of Prisons maintains a database of the location of federal inmates who have been incarcerated since 1982, and both the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) maintain separate, national sex offender registries.
Ohio’s eLicense portal provides a free search engine for contact information and disciplinary records for many Ohio professionals, including accountants, engineers, doctors, and nurses. Lawyers are searchable by name through the Ohio Supreme Court’s free online Attorney Directory.
Cuyahoga County’s Fiscal Office (formerly Auditor) offers an online search by name for real property ownership, including transfer history and deeds, certified values, land descriptions, building information, improvements, permits, and taxes. In addition, the Fiscal Office (formerly Recorder) offers a name search that provides information on deeds, mortgages, leases, mechanic’s liens, notices of commencement, and various liens.
FAA aircraft ownership is freely searchable by name online, but cars and boats can only be searched by title number, VIN or ID. In addition, a fee-based database called OpenOnline is searchable by name for motor vehicle ownership and recent citations.
Military Records/Civil Servants
Lawyers who need to confirm active military status may be able to submit a request at the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act website. Both the Cleveland Public Library and the Cuyahoga County Public Library also provide access to several genealogy databases, including Ancestry’s Library Edition, and a specific product called Fold3, which contains current U.S. military records with stories, photographs and personal documents. Although it may be a long shot, local county recorders may contain searchable indicis of discharge forms. Finally, data on veterans’ service records and former federal civil servants may be available through the National Archives.
Ohio offers a free portal for searching UCC filings by the name of either the individual debtor or the secured party. Lawyers only need a name and a birth date to find someone’s address, political affiliation, and polling history. Records of Cleveland births and deaths can be purchased online, in person, or by mail, Ohio offers the same service statewide, and Vitalchek may help nationwide. Finally, lawyers should search public library book and article databases and open access directories for authors’ works and CVs.
In contrast to individual database searching, Lexis and Westlaw offer comprehensive databases of information on people. With a permissible purpose, users can search both products by name, alias, address, or social security number (SSN). Smartlinx reports from Lexis and People Map reports from Westlaw can include name variations, dates of birth, partial SSNs, current and former addresses, phone numbers, emails, employment records, business affiliations, voter registrations, professional licenses, other licenses (sport, pilot), bankruptcies, liens and judgments, real property, boats and aircraft, UCC liens, criminal and traffic cases, associates, relatives, and possible neighbors.
4 Ohio AG: http://www.icrimewatch.net/index.php?AgencyID=55149; Cuyahoga Sheriff: http://bit.ly/2qk9VVA
5 https://www.bop.gov/inmateloc/FBI: https://www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/sex-offender-registry; DOJ:
14 Veterans: https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records; Civil Servants: https://www.archives.gov/st-louis/civilian-personnel
Kathleen M. Dugan serves as the head Librarian of The Cleveland Law Library. She has been a CMBA member since 2003. She can be reached at (216) 861-5070 or firstname.lastname@example.org.