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Factual Research and Public Records

To show the types of resources available for factual research, direct links to the underlying sources are provided where possible. While resources for Massachusetts are used as examples, other states are likely to have similar resources.

Introduction

Getting Started

Public records and factual research can be a daunting task, but it can also be fun and enlightening. Imagine yourself as a private eye, investigating the background of witnesses, experts, potential clients, adversaries, or claimants.  

What is "Factual Research"?

In a legal environment, "factual research" (also referred to as "non-law research") is different from "legal research." Before you can know what law applies, you need to make sure you fully understand the facts of a situation. Law school hypotheticals typically contain all the information you will need, but the "real world" seldom works that way.

  • You may need to identify or locate relevant people, or simply learn more about them;
  • You may need to perform due diligence research on potential clients or business partners/transactions;
  • You may need to determine if a person or business entity has assets (before you initiate a law suit against them); or
  • You may simply need to fill in knowledge gaps or verify information you were told.

All of these situations involve factual research.

The Truth About Public Records

The term "public records" implies the information you are researching is public, and available for anyone to review. While this may be true to a certain extent, it is important to remember what "public" does not mean. "Public" does not necessarily mean "available online," "easy to obtain," or "free."

Doing factual research can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. There are billions of public records – and more created every day. At the same time, privacy restrictions limit the availability of certain information to the public. Selecting the right tool, database, agency, or department to get started can help ensure you aren't searching an unnecessarily large (or altogether wrong) "haystack," which will save you time, money, and aggravation. To do this, keep in mind that:

  • Many of the databases to which you will find links in this Research Guide are free to use, but some will cost money – either a per-use fee or a subscription to access more detailed records;
  • Many public records are not available online (especially those that were not "born digital"), so you may need to call or visit the particular agency or office that maintains the records; and
  • Every state (and country) is different in terms of what is available online, or even what is defined as "public."

It always helps to have reasonable expectations!

Privacy Laws

Below are two main statutes that protect an individual's personal information (and consequently the ability of a third-party to access it).

Much of the information covered by these (and similar) statutes is sold to database vendors, who in turn sell access to users who come within the permitted exceptions. This is why users are typically asked to certify their "permissible use" before they may access the information. Often,  an attorney's work will come within one of the "permissible uses." However, law students – even if they are working in a legal clinic – are not yet licensed attorneys and therefore will need to select "no permissible use" and have limited access.

NOTE: "Permissible uses" by licensed attorneys can include such matters as: serving legal process, locating victims, witnesses, or beneficiaries, insurance investigations, debt collection, child support enforcement, etc.

For additional privacy information from the perspective of consumers, visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Ethics

Just because you have access to a resource doesn't mean you should use it to obtain information about anyone of interest to you. Your use of a database is subject to its Terms of Use requirements, which are generally designed to comply with relevant laws (see, for example, the Subscriber Agreement for TransUnion's TLOxp database). Also, keep in mind that Rule 8.4(c) of the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct states that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.

Below are examples of research tactics that may be viewed as unethical:

  • Research that is inappropriate or not relevant to your case (e.g., using a public records database to find information about celebrities, public figures, or personal acquaintances);
  • Pre-texting (i.e., pretending to be someone you are not);
  • Using an "inside source" (e.g., a friend or relative in law enforcement)
  • Searching through someone's trash (while it may not be illegal to search through someone's trash in certain circumstances, that doesn't necessarily mean it is ethical).

This is obviously a gray area, but be mindful that if something doesn't feel right, it may not be.

On a related note, you may find the ABA's Formal Opinion #462 (February 21, 2013) regarding a Judge's Use of Electronic Social Networking Media of interest.

Different Types of Public Records Resources

Public records come in a variety of forms:

  • Electronic vs. Paper – Not all public records are "born digital" and digitizing paper records takes time, labor, and money. When records are not available digitally, you will often have to physically go to the court, agency, or other source of the record.
  • Free vs. "Freemium" vs. Subscription – Many online sources provide basic information for free; however, more detailed (and desirable) information will often cost money. Sometimes the charge is on a "per transaction" basis or an ongoing subscription may be required. As a general rule, you get what you pay for.
  • Specific sources vs. "Aggregators" – Some public records resources allow you to search multiple geographic areas at once. This is very useful if you don't know the location for an individual, business, or piece of property. However, the downside is that collecting information from a variety of sources can mean the information you find isn't as up-to-date as the information you would find if you went directly to the source. 
NOTE: Harvard Law School provides access to many electronic public records sources through a subscription to Lexis Advance's Public Records Module (access limited to HLS Community). If you need assistance accessing this module from your Lexis Advance account, please contact the Reference Desk.

Finding People

General Information

Finding contact information for people can be as easy as typing a name into a search engine – but more likely, it will not be. Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to locate specific individuals.

Tips:

  • Try alternative spellings (and likely misspellings).
  • Hyphenated surnames may appear in either order, as only one name or the other, or as a middle name and surname.
  • Look for prior names (e.g., maiden names).
  • Social media can provide a wealth of information (see the "Social Media" section, below).
  • State licensing agencies can be useful sources for contact information as people tend to keep these up-to-date (see the  "Professional Licensing" section, below).
  • Obituaries often provide the current state (or town) of residence for survivors – and it is helpful to know if the person you are trying to find has died (see the "Vital Records, etc." section, below).
  • Addresses can be confirmed against county property records (see the "Property Records" section under "Finding Assets," below).
  • Try "old school" methods like calling Directory Assistance (411) to find a current phone number (especially for landlines).

Caveats:

  • Searches for common names often result in many "false positives" (i.e., right name but wrong person). Try to limit the geographical scope of your search as much as possible or use any "associated with" information that may be provided to narrow down the options.
  • The information you find may not be accurate or it may be out of date (especially with free resources, where minimal efforts are made to weed out old information). Always try to confirm the information you find from another, independent source.
  • Although landline phone numbers are made public (via Directory Assistance) by default, cell phone numbers are private by default and the owner must "opt-in" to make them publicly available. As a result, cell phone numbers are rarely found in free or low-cost databases.
  • Databases will often tell you exactly what their coverage is (i.e., where they get their information and for what time period). If an online resource only has records for Massachusetts back to 2010, don't try to find older records using that site.

Free Locators

Below are some FREE directories you can use to find people (many more exist – you can easily find them by googling).

To a large extent, you get what you pay for. Nevertheless, there may be times when free resources are the only ones available or the most convenient to use and they can certainly be useful. You will notice, however, that often only the most basic information is free – it will cost money to obtain more detailed information or a "report."

Please keep in mind that because these resources are free (or relatively low cost), the information you find will often be out-of-date or not entirely accurate as minimal effort is made to verify the accuracy or currency of the information. Any information you find should be considered a starting point and independently verified before you rely upon it for any reason.

For more information about these (and other) online "people search" and "data broker" sites, see additional information provided by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Fee-Based Resources

Below is a sampling of sites that will cost money (many more exist and can easily be found by googling),

These services tend to be more accurate, more current, and provide more detailed reports than the free sites. (Free sites will often lead you to a fee-for-service site to get additional information.)  

NOTE: The two subscription sites noted here require you to verify who you are and why you need the information.  Access is regulated by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (GLB/DPPA). "Permissible uses" generally include business reasons, fraud prevention, litigation research, employment screening, or permission from the individual being researched. For additional information about privacy protections, see the "Privacy Laws" section, above.

NOTE: Harvard Law School provides access to many electronic public records sources through a subscription to Lexis Advance's Public Records Module (access limited to HLS Community). If you need assistance accessing this module from your Lexis Advance account, please contact the Reference Desk.

Social Media

People often "broadcast" information using social media. As a result, searching social media can help you find information that otherwise might be more difficult to find due to privacy restrictions. In addition to searching general social media sites like Facebook or Instagram, try using these:

Personal Records

Vital Records, etc.

"Vital Records" are official government records of key life events. These typically include birth, death, marriage, and divorce; however, some states include other events (e.g., civil unions, domestic partnerships, naturalization, etc.). 

Adoption records are typically held by the court that granted the adoption and are usually sealed (but may be accessed by a court order after a demonstration of need).

This section includes information on how to find traditional vital records and other related information about a person.

NOTE: Requirements regarding the types of vital records that may be obtained vary by state and agency. Often, only the individual at issue or their immediate family may request such documents.

NOTE: Harvard Law School provides access to many electronic public records sources through a subscription to Lexis Advance's Public Records Module (access limited to HLS Community). If you need assistance accessing this module from your Lexis Advance account, please contact the Reference Desk.

Professional Licensing

Many professions require licensing by states (or by the federal government, in the case of professions that extend across state borders e.g., the Federal Aviation Administration). Most (if not all) of these licenses can be verified online by state government or agency websites (or through private sites that aggregate this information). Below are some examples of licensing-related websites.

NOTE: Licensing authorities can also be a source of information for determining if someone has had professional complaints filed against them or if they have been formally sanctioned.

Military Records

Sometimes it may be necessary to verify someone's military service – whether it is to determine eligibility to receive certain benefits or to show where someone was (or could not have been) at a point in time. The resources below can help you obtain this information.

Criminal Records

If you need to discover (or confirm) someone's criminal background, there are a variety of tools you can use. However, privacy concerns may limit the amount of information you are able to access (law enforcement and criminal justice agencies will have access to the most comprehensive information).

You should first determine if the type of information you want to find about someone can be accessed without violating privacy laws (which will vary by state). Many commercial sites will purport to make "criminal background" information available but may end up containing a very limited amount of information.

NOTE: "Criminal records" are not the same as "court records" (which are generally considered to be public records, unless sealed). Please see "Court Records," below for additional information.

Business Records

Background Information

This initial section may contain more information than you are looking for (but may be helpful to some). Adjust your scroll speed accordingly.

When researching a business or organization, the types of public records you can expect to find depends on the type of legal entity you are researching. Below is a high-level (and overly simplified) summary. For additional information, please see the HLSL Research Guide on Business, Company & Industry Research and/or other library resources on the specific type of business organization.

  • Sole Proprietorship: 
    • The simplest type of business
    • A single owner is fully responsible for any liabilities of the business (e.g., taxes, legal judgments, etc.).
    • The owner and the business are essentially one.
    • There are FEW required disclosures.

EXCEPTION: If a sole proprietorship operates under a business name, it typically needs to make a "Doing Business As" (DBA) filing that identifies who is responsible for a particular business. DBA filings can generally be obtained from the local Secretary of State's office (see the "Secretary of State Filings" section, below).

  • Partnerships: 
    • Two or more people involved. 
    • Main types:
      • General Partnerships – each partner is fully responsible for the liabilities of the partnership.
      • Limited Partnerships – consisting of 2 types of partners:
        • General Partners – who have full liability
        • Limited Partners – whose liability is limited to the extent of their investment (i.e., essentially investors).
    • Public records can generally be obtained from the local Secretary of State's office - especially in the case of Limited Partnerships or if a DBA Filing is required (see the "Secretary of State Filings" section, below).
  • Corporations: 
    • Formal incorporation allows a distinction between ownership (shareholders) and operation (employees).
    • Main types of corporations are:
      • Privately-held (often family-owned) vs. Publicly-traded (mandatory SEC filings and ongoing reporting – see the "Publicly-Traded Companies" section, below).
      • For-profit vs. Non-profit (mandatory IRS filings and ongoing reporting - see the "Non-Profit Organizations" section, below).
  • Other Types of Limited Liability Entities: 
    • Various limited liability entities exist between Partnerships and Corporations.
    • Examples include:
      • Professional Corporations (PCs) or Professional Service Corporations (PSCs),
      • Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs), and
      • Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs). 

Bottom Line: The amount of public disclosure that is required of a business/organization increases the more that:

  • Personal liability for the business's liabilities is limited,
  • There is a separation between the ownership of the business and its day-to-day operations, and/or
  • The organization has been granted tax-exempt status

The purpose of these disclosures to:

  • Help identify who is responsible for a business's liabilities,
  • Allow investors (or donors) to make informed investment (or charitable donation) decisions, and
  • Ensure that the requirements for tax-exempt status continue to be met.

Useful article: Matthew M. Morrison, Due Diligence: Company Information for Law Students, 108 Law Libr. J. 427 (2016), https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/llj108&i=421

NOTE: Harvard Law School provides access to many electronic public records sources through a subscription to Lexis Advance's Public Records Module (access limited to HLS Community). If you need assistance accessing this module from your Lexis Advance account, please contact the Reference Desk.

Secretary of State Filings

Secretary of State filings generally contain the following information about a business:

  • Legal name,
  • Type of entity,
  • Date of creation,
  • State of incorporation,
  • Physical address (headquarters and local),
  • Resident agent/registered agent (for service of process),
  • Officers/management, and more.

Publicly-Traded Companies

If a company is publicly-traded, it is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and subject to numerous reporting and disclosure requirements under the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. These include periodic filings (e.g., SEC Form 10-K) and as needed filings (e.g., SEC Form 8-K). These filings are designed to:

  • Provide investors (both current & potential) with relevant information to make informed investment decisions, and
  • Ensure the integrity of the markets by making sure that those who have "inside" knowledge about a company are not taking advantage of it for their own benefit.

Below are some FREE sources of information regarding publicly-traded companies. 

NOTE: The websites of publicly-traded companies typically provide a wealth of company information. For example, access to recent SEC filings, current and historical Annual Reports to shareholders, and general corporate governance information (often in a section entitled "Investor Relations" or simply "Investors"), as well as convenient access to company press releases (often in a section entitled "News").

Privately-Held Companies

Most businesses in the US are privately-held (and often family-owned); however, some privately-held companies are also quite large. Although it is more difficult to find information about privately-held companies, it is not impossible. Here are some suggestions:

  • Secretary of State filings - These required filings can help identify the individuals who own the companies (see the "Secretary of State Filings" section, above).
  • Local newspapers, business publications, and trade journals - These publications often contain articles about privately-held companies that make news in a particular region or industry. 
    • Business Source Complete (EBSCO) - Business-related publications, including industry reports, market research reports, and trade journals.
    • Newspapers & News Collections (HLSL Find a Database)
    • Factiva - A news database that includes many trade publications, market research reports, company profiles, and more. Click on the "Company/Markets" tab and select "Company" to then search for a company. Use "Categories" at top (or options in the right margin) to filter News stories.
  • Specialty databases - Some databases will provide as much information as they can find about companies, even if they are privately-held. 
    • Orbis - A global company database that includes information on privately-held companies.

Non-Profit Organizations

Non-profit organizations often seek donations from the public. As a result, the initial filings to request tax-exempt status (IRS Form 1023) and ongoing reporting (IRS Forms 990) required by the IRS are designed to not only ensure that the organization is operating in a manner consistent with its tax-exempt status but to also provide potential donors with the information they need to make informed charitable donation decisions. In this regard, potential donors are akin to potential investors.

More Information

Please refer to the HLSL Research Guide on Business, Company & Industry Research for more detailed business research information, including information regarding more robust, subscription resources.

Finding Assets

Property Records

Deeds and titles to property are typically filed at the county level. Although property records are often available online, this may not always be the case and a trip to the county registry may be required. Information regarding property ownership may also be obtained from local Tax Assessors' offices. (NOTE: This information concerns the ownership of property, not necessarily who resides at the property in the case of renters.)

Below are some FREE online resources for finding property records:

And don't forget Google Maps – the satellite and street views can be very informative!

Others Types of Assets

Obtaining information about other types of assets can be more difficult (see "Privacy Laws," above).

  • Financial/bank account information generally cannot be obtained without the party's consent or a court order, subpoena, search warrant, etc.
  • The Drivers Privacy Protection Act generally prohibits disclosure of motor vehicle ownership .

However, Divorce/Bankruptcy/Foreclosure filings are public records and often include financial information about people and businesses (unless sealed, as is often the case in divorces). Nevertheless, you may be able to obtain information regarding sources of income/revenue, the existence of assets such as bank accounts, stock, real property, and other investments, the identity of creditors, etc. See the "Court Records" section, below for additional information.

NOTE: Harvard Law School provides access to many electronic public records sources through a subscription to Lexis Advance's Public Records Module (access limited to HLS Community). If you need assistance accessing this module from your Lexis Advance account, please contact the Reference Desk.

Using the Public Records module, you can not only search for real property owned by a particular individual but you can search the history of ownership for a particular piece of property (see the "Property History" option).

Court Records

Docket Information & Court Filings

A "docket" is a record of the proceedings of a court case and provides such information as:

  • The official docket/case number
  • The relevant people involved in the case (e.g., the parties to the case, their attorneys, the judge(s), witnesses, etc.),
  • A timeline of events relating to the case (e.g., motions entered, documents filed, rulings issued, etc.), and
  • The current status of the case, including the final disposition.

It is important to note that the details, contents, and accessibility of dockets may vary across jurisdictions, especially with respect to state courts. 

For detailed information on how to research court dockets, see the Records, Brief, and Court Filings Research Guide

 

Some additional resources you might find helpful are:

Experts and Expert Witnesses

You may need to do factual research as part of finding, evaluating, and otherwise vetting expert witnesses. Some resources you may want to use are:

Newspapers

Searching Newspapers

Newspapers should not be overlooked as a resource for factual research. Here is a list of Newspaper Databases (with descriptions; access limited to the Harvard University or HLS communities)

For additional information on researching newspapers (including foreign newspapers), please refer to the Harvard Libraries Research Guide on Newspapers and Newspaper Indexes.

 

In addition, you may want to try:

Freedom of Information Act - FOIA

What Is FOIA?

The Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 – often called by its acronym FOIA (pronounced foy-ah) – is the law that gives citizens the right to request and review records and information from the Federal Government.  To learn more about how FOIA works, see the official website at FOIA.gov.

Each federal agency has its own FOIA office and requests for records should be made directly to that office. If you can't locate an agency's FOIA office on the agency's website, use FOIA.gov's Agency Search Tool.

How Does FOIA Work?

To learn more about how FOIA works, see the official website at FOIA.gov.

Each federal agency has its own FOIA office and requests for records should be made directly to that office. If you can't locate an agency's FOIA office on the agency's website, use FOIA.gov's Agency Search Tool.

You may also want to refer to this book:

Miscellaneous Sites of Possible Interest

Additional Resources That Might Help You Find Information

Below are some sites you might find helpful but which did not lend themselves to obvious categorization.

Tools to Help You Verify Information

It is becoming very important to be able to verify any information you find online.

For general information on how to evaluate potential "fake news," see the Harvard Library's Research Guide on Fake News, Misinformation, and Propaganda. Also, First Draft is a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. You may want to check out their website, which includes a free, hour-long introductory course on how to verify online media (look under "Education") and many other tips.

Below are some other online tools you may find helpful in verifying – or learning more about – any type of online information.

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