My name is Elizabeth A. Braatz. I am currently a junior at Western Oregon University where I am majoring in Criminal Justice (CJ) with a minor in Legal Studies. Once I finish my CJ degree, I plan to go to law school and become an attorney, then pursue one of two possible career options. The first is to become a criminal investigator or prosecuting attorney at the county or state level. My second possible career option is to investigate and litigate fraud cases as either a government or private attorney. Using public records would be very helpful in either of these careers.
How Attorneys Can Use Public Records & Why?
I can foresee a number of situations when I will use public records as a criminal investigator or as a prosecuting attorney. Public records can be used to find potential victims and witnesses, and also to help identify and locate suspects in crimes. For example, if a crime happened in a particular neighborhood, public records can help identify local residents who might have witnessed the incident. If door-to-door canvassing isn’t an option, homeownership records available through the County Clerk or Recorder can identify homeowners who can help answer my questions or provide contact information for renters who live in those homes. Many police departments publish statistics to help identify crime patterns including dates, times, locations, and incident types that can be used to prevent future incidents or connect related incidents to each other. When several similar incidents are found, as an investigator or prosecutor I can review and use video from commercial and private security systems that may show the same people or vehicles in those areas when the crimes were committed. Companies that compile data from Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) systems can help identify cars that frequent a particular area, which can help me locate other people who might be able to help me. ALPR data can also help show whether someone (or at least their car) had been at or near a particular location in the past.
Public access to court records for both criminal and civil cases is also very important. A large pool of suspects can be narrowed by identifying previous patterns in their criminal histories to see if one or more of them is more likely to have committed a crime. And previous lawsuits against a person or corporation may indicate whether they have been involved in defrauding someone in the past as well as showing whether a plaintiff has filed numerous frivolous or nuisance lawsuits in the past in the hope of getting quick cash settlements.
Family search records through genealogy websites can also be used in a criminal or civil case. An example would be trying to locate family members to help support a victim who is afraid to appear in court or to find witnesses to bolster or refute a suspect’s alibi, reputation, and military or business history and reputation.
As a fraud litigator, I can foresee using public records to not only locate possible witnesses but also to follow the money trail to find out what people and companies might be connected to each other, even when that information is hidden. Fictitious Business Names (FBN) or Doing Business As (DBA) records can identify business names as well as their owners, operators, and legal representatives of companies. Once the business names and personnel are identified, that information can be used in repeated FBN/DBA searches to find additional links in the ownership chain and related companies. They can also be used to uncover aliases someone may have used in the past, which may lead to other related information. Property ownership searches through the County Clerk/Recorder can be done with any names uncovered, which may show interconnected relationships between people and companies that appear on the surface to be unrelated. FBN/DBA searches can also be used to help prove or disprove a person’s claim to being an officer of a corporation.
What Types Of Public Records Can Be Used For Attorneys?
Just as a suspect’s criminal history can be important, criminal and civil court records can uncover previous incidents and locations and patterns for crimes and lawsuits. They can be used to verify, question, or refute the information provided to law enforcement or to the courts.
Simple internet searches can be invaluable in finding information for investigations and court cases. Using different search engines such as Google, DuckDuckGo and Bing will often yield different results. Performing separate searches using the Images, Videos, and News features on these search engines can also lead to additional information.
One problem with some public records is when a suspect or witness has lived in several different places. This is where paid online searches can be useful. Having a subscription to these services can help find information in different jurisdictions and locations with one or two searches, instead of performing separate public records checks for every city, county, or state where someone lived before.
As a future criminal or civil attorney, it is important to remember that sometimes people are innocent and did not commit the crime or civil action of which they were accused. Each of the records I just discussed can also be used to protect people who were wrongfully accused, regardless of whether or not the accusation was intentional or inadvertent. It is just as important to protect people from unjust convictions as it is to identify and prosecute suspects and bring justice to victims.
Regardless of whether I become a criminal investigator, a prosecuting attorney, or a civil litigator, using public records will undoubtedly be part of my toolkit for successfully resolving my cases.
Author: Elizabeth A. Braatz
Elizabeth A. Braatz is a junior at Western Oregon University where she is majoring in Criminal Justice (CJ) and the winner of the Infotracer Education Grant for the 2020-2021 academic year.