By Cynthia Hetherington
Inevitably, investigations will always come down to legal and regulatory violations or sanctions, whether a foreign government or a sex offender list. In this 4-part blog series, we examine the various investigative trails that develop because of involvement with, or violation of, government regulatory issues. These trails of so-called dirt are grouped into six categories:
Local, State, and Federal Court Records
Licensing Boards and Disciplinary Actions
Trails of Financial Crimes
Publicly Traded Companies and Security Dealers Compliance Actions
Government Watch Lists
Sanctions, Terrorists, and Other Law Enforcement Sources
When companies and/or people are found on regulatory lists, it does not necessarily mean they are suspected of crimes or should be avoided completely. Instead, the circumstances should be examined and understood—especially in the cases of very large companies. For example, one section of a company might be responsible for a seemingly egregious error, but, in reality, is merely a minor issue meriting a fine and a wrist-slap. In comparison, an ethics violation in the sports world, appearing to have been covered up, might result in, say, a penalty filed against one NFL player, which subsequently is then captured by the media and results in a lifetime suspension of that player and a call to remove the NFL Commissioner, with sweeping regulatory changes to follow.
This week we explore where to look for records.
Searching Court Records and State Criminal Agency Records
Many business background investigations involve investigations on individuals. Key areas of focus are criminal cases, civil actions, and sources of various disciplinary actions
Unless a violation of federal law is involved, the information trail of a criminal record starts at the county, parish, city, or tribal courthouse. The information that could be disclosed on a criminal record includes the arrest record, criminal charges, fines, and sentencing and incarceration information.
Criminal Record Searching
The first step in criminal record searching is determining where to search. A county courthouse search is the most accurate and least complicated search but not always the most practical. There are over 6,000 courts in the U.S. that hold felony or significant (non-traffic related) misdemeanor records. For those of you who think everything is online, you’re misled. According to The Sourcebook to Public Records Information, 11th ed. (2015), less than half of the courts offer online access to a searchable record index and far less offer online access to case files.
Each state has a central judicial office, usually known as the State Court Administrator, which oversees the state court system. The state judicial website is a good place to find decisions and opinions from the state’s Supreme Court appeals court. In some states, the state court administration office oversees a statewide online access system to court records. Some of these systems are commercial and fee-based. Other systems offer free access, but search results are usually very limited in comparison. For example, statewide online systems are available in Alabama, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin; but you still need to understand the court structure in that state, which particular courts are included in their online system, what types of cases are included or not included, and what personal identifiers are presented.
Criminal court records are eventually submitted to a central repository controlled by a state agency such as the State Police or Department of Public Safety.
The difference on the record access procedures between the state repositories and the courts is huge. Records maintained by the court are generally open to the public, but not all state criminal record repositories open their criminal records to the public. Of those states that will release records to the public, many require the submission of fingerprints and/or signed release forms. Check the BRB Publications website to locate any possible open free database availability. Counties in Florida and Texas, plus the city of Los Angeles, have a lot online. If you are a subscriber to BRB’s Public Record Research System, you will have access to court info on 7,900+ courts as well as each state’s court structure. If not, start with looking up the state’s court administration webpage.
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Cynthia Hetherington, MLS, MSM, CFE, CII is the founder and president of Hetherington Group, a consulting, publishing, and training firm that leads in due diligence, corporate intelligence, and cyber investigations by keeping pace with the latest security threats and assessments. She has authored three books on how to conduct investigations, is the publisher of the newsletter, Data2know: Internet and Online Intelligence, and annually trains thousands of investigators, security professionals, attorneys, accountants, auditors, military intelligence professionals, and federal, state, and local agencies on best practices in the public and private sectors.