5 Prowling the Courthouse – The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigating, Third Edition



Prowling the Courthouse

In This Chapter

Locating property transaction records

Navigating the lower and higher court systems

Searching for local and federal criminal records

Accessing bankruptcy court files

Cancelling alimony obligations

Christine called me one day. She and her boyfriend were getting married soon. Problem was, he wasn’t yet divorced from his first wife. They’d been separated for four years, but no divorce—hence, they’d never agreed to any formal alimony or child support settlements. The soon-to-be ex-wife was asking for more money than Christine thought she was entitled to. Christine, being no dummy, knew that money out of her fiancé’s pocket meant less money for her.

She wanted to know how much the ex-wife was paying each month in mortgage payments. Christine thought the ex-wife had grossly inflated the figure to bump up the child support payments. Proof of a lower mortgage payment would result in lower support payments.

I actually was kind of rooting for the kids in this case, but I don’t make up the facts—I just report them. In Christine’s case, I shrugged my shoulders and took her American Express credit-card number over the telephone. She could have saved herself $225 if she’d read this chapter. All she’d had to do was make a quick trip to her local courthouse.

Going to Court: Accessing Courthouse Records

Need other reasons to read this chapter? Have you ever bought a house? Or might you buy a house in the future? If so, and if you’re smart, you will want to know how much the seller paid for it and how much he still owes on his house before you make your offer. You don’t have to know those facts, but knowledge is power. Your realtor either won’t know or won’t think to tell you. If you know that the seller has a gazillion dollars’ worth of equity in the house, you can submit a lowball offer, and he may just accept it. If you know that the house is free and clear, you may ask the seller to finance the house for you instead of using conventional financing. You can get all this information from your local courthouse.

Have you ever thought about going into business with a partner, a buddy from work maybe? Before you sign those partnership agreements, you’d better find out whether he has any judgments against him. You can get that information from your local or state courthouse, too.

State courts bear a tremendous load when it comes to handling cases. Approximately 30 million cases a year are filed in the U.S. state court system. For comparison, about 2 million cases were filed in 2010 in the federal system. Of those federal cases, about 70 percent are bankruptcies, 20 percent are civil cases, and 10 percent are criminal cases.

Or are you paying alimony to an ex-spouse? In most cases, the alimony is supposed to end upon remarriage of the spouse. She’s been dating the same guy for a year and moved in with him, but you’re still shelling out the big bucks each month. Ex-spouses remarry all the time without telling their former spouse. And they cohabitate without remarrying, thinking that they can continue to collect the alimony without recourse as long as they aren’t legally wedded. Well, surprise! Many states have laws that allow for the reduction or withdrawal of alimony if the receiving spouse cohabitates and receives substantial sustenance from her common-law husband. Want to take a guess at where you might be able to find the information you need to put a stop to your monthly financial obligation to your ex? If you answered, “The courthouse,” you’re right!

The Local County Courthouse

County courthouses have four main areas of interest for investigators—and that’s not counting the courtrooms where you may be called upon to testify (for details on testifying, check out Chapter 21). Here are the four main areas:

Official Records

Property Appraiser’s Office/Records

Civil Files

Criminal Files

Different courthouses may call the areas different names, but every county has them. I describe each of these areas in the following sections.

Making the Official Records Speak

Searching official records seems to confuse a lot of my investigator interns. I think they feel it’s a waste of time—they would rather be out on the street following somebody. But a good private investigator knows the courthouse, and all of its nooks and crannies, inside and out.

Don’t just think databases and restrict your courthouse searches to the computer. You need to understand how the record system works in the courts where you’re doing the research. Pay databases are great, but you need to develop calluses from flipping through files to really know your local court system.

Official records are records that are recorded at the courthouse for all the public to see. By recorded, I mean that the document is entered into the official records in a particular book and on a certain page. In the precomputer era, a notation was handwritten into a large ledger-type book saying, for example, a certain mortgage from such-and-such lender was recorded against a particular piece of real property.

Real property is anything that’s not personal property; it’s anything that is a part of the earth or attached to the ground and that can’t be easily moved. Think dirt, houses, and barns.

The existence of this mortgage was physically entered into a book on a particular page number. An index was made somewhat alphabetically, and you could hand-search those indexes by year to see whether a mortgage was recorded. As the pages of one book were filled up, the county recorder’s office began a new book. The books were numbered, and hence you would find a legal description of a mortgage, noting that it was recorded in such-and-such book and on that particular page number.

Anybody who may have a claim or want to establish a claim or lien on or to any particular piece of property is free to search these official records. You’ll find notations regarding other mortgages, liens, or judgments (or satisfaction of mortgages, liens, or judgments) that might pertain to a particular person or piece of property.

When you purchase a piece of real property, a deed is recorded in the official records of the county. If you borrowed money to buy the property, most likely the mortgage company or bank also recorded the mortgage. The lender does this as a sort of notice to all the public that it has the first mortgage on that property. If it wasn’t recorded, and you borrowed some more money on the property, the next bank would record its mortgage, and it would have the first mortgage recorded. If you failed to pay the mortgage on the second loan, the second bank could foreclose and the first bank would just be out of luck. This is why, when you buy a piece of real property, you should always hire a professional to do a title search to make sure all the mortgages and liens recorded on that property have been paid or satisfied before you take title to the property.

I hear people complain all the time about our public servants. I disagree wholeheartedly. I’ve searched for information in courthouses all across the United States, and I’ve never found a more helpful bunch of people than at local county courthouses. They’ve always been more than willing to show me how to do the search I need—and if I act pathetic enough, they might even do it for me.

Now, why should you care about all of this? Remember Christine, at the beginning of this chapter? The house the ex-wife lived in belonged to her father. All I had to do was go into the official records and search his name to find the mortgage on her house. In fact, I found out that the house had been purchased in 1979, and a mortgage had been placed on it. I found a satisfaction of the mortgage recorded in 1989, and another mortgage had been placed on it. That mortgage had been satisfied in 1999, and another, higher mortgage had been placed on it at that time. On this last refinancing, it looked like she had pulled some cash out of it and refinanced it for 15 years. The mortgage was for $72,000. Unfortunately for my client, since this mortgage was for only 15 years, her payments were higher than for a 30-year mortgage.

Using a financial calculator, I figured out what her payments were for principal and interest based on a $72,000 loan for 15 years. I had to guess at the interest rate because the promissory note wasn’t recorded with the mortgage. But it wasn’t too hard to go back three years and see what the average 15-year loan was going for in April of that year. Principal and interest came to about $607.58.

Christine needed to know the amount of the mortgage payment. Now I had the first piece of the puzzle, the principal and interest payment.

The Property Appraiser

I went across the hall to the property appraiser’s office. (Actually, that’s a fib. In our county, as in most counties now, the property appraiser’s records are online, and before I went to the courthouse, I looked up the latest appraisal on the website.)

The appraiser’s office showed the value of the property, the type of construction (which was brick), and this year’s current tax amount. In this case, the property taxes were about $1,200 annually. This meant the ex-wife’s mortgage company would have added about $100 per month to the principal and interest payment for the property taxes.

I called my insurance agent to see what a typical homeowners insurance policy cost for a brick home. He gave me a figure of about $485, which is about $40 per month. (That was before the parade of hurricanes that hit Florida, so insurance rates are higher now.) Add the three figures together (principal and interest $607.58, taxes $100, and insurance $40), for a total of $747.58.

Bingo. In 30 minutes, I had the information Christine wanted. Let’s see, Christine paid me $225 for a half-hour’s work—that’s $550 per hour. Better than minimum wage, for sure.

The State Civil Court System

Court systems in most states are divided into higher courts and lower courts. Some states have other civil courts, like water courts, traffic courts, and magistrate courts. These miscellaneous courts are almost always lower courts dealing with less serious infractions or lower financial amounts. You may have to do a little research in your city of interest to see what the courts are called there.

Higher Civil Courts

The higher courts and the lower courts have different names in different states. In Florida, they are called circuit courts and county courts; Arizonans call them superior courts and justice courts; New Yorkers call them supreme courts and county courts. Let’s forget the names and just call them higher and lower courts.

The higher courts deal with more important cases. More important usually means more money.

Civil actions such as divorce, malpractice, libel, and other suits are likely to involve amounts over $15,000 and are heard in the higher courts. Petty actions like residential rent disputes are typically handled in the lower courts. Everybody has heard of small claims court. In most jurisdictions, small claims refers to damages sought that are less than $15,000. (In some states it’s even less.) In lower court cases, people frequently don’t use the services of an attorney and represent themselves.

My client, Mary Beth, whom I’d known on a personal basis for a long time, called me. She said her husband was in jail on charges of spousal abuse (toward her), and she had a restraining order against him. He’d blackened her eyes, dragged her around the house by her hair, and beat her with a clothes hanger.

Mary Beth had been married to Lionel for just under a year. She wanted to know whether he’d had physical altercations with any of his previous three wives. Where do we go to look? To the office of the clerk of the higher court.

I reviewed all three of the previous divorce files. One restraining order in one of them alleged physical brutality. I found the personal data on the ex-wives and tracked them down. Each of his ex-wives told me Lionel had been physically abusive to her. In fact, he had been arrested multiple times for abusing each one. (Lionel’s relationship with his second wife was a little different: she told me they used to beat each other up. Now that was a new one for me.)

If Mary Beth had come to me before she’d married Lionel, she would have known about his propensity for violence and perhaps been prepared to diffuse it or even not marry him at all. At least now she knows it wasn’t her fault. It amazes me, though, how few people do any sort of prenuptial background investigation, especially when it’s a second, third, or fourth marriage. This was Lionel’s fourth marriage and Mary Beth’s fifth. I also checked the criminal records for Lionel, and I talk about what I found there later in this chapter (in the section on criminal courts).

By the way, Mary Beth is still married to and living with Lionel. He goes to anger-management classes every Tuesday night. I told her to lock up the clothes hangers, but she didn’t think it was funny.

Lower Civil Courts

I conduct background investigations for a local landlord. This fellow rents high-dollar furnished homes located in a golfing community; almost all of his leases are short term. One of the checks he insists on before renting a house to a prospective tenant is to search the lower court records from whatever county the renter previously resided in. He’s been involved before with tenants who pay the first month’s rent and then begin some kind of action in small claims court, and end up living rent free month after month until he can finally get them evicted. If we find any previous litigation in which a prospective tenant was the plaintiff, he refuses to rent to her. If the person was a defendant, he wants the details of the suit and then makes a decision.

Legal actions require a minimum of two parties. The plaintiff is the party who initiates the action or lawsuit. The defendant is the person on the receiving end of the action.

This client figures that even though it costs him a little bit more to have us run a civil records search, he saves big bucks in the long run in attorney fees and loss of rent.

In most court actions, the plaintiff’s name is listed first on the complaint. The defendant is being sued or arrested by the plaintiff. In criminal cases, the plaintiff is the government and the person being charged with the crime is the defendant. Usually you see a criminal case listed as, for example, the State of Florida v. Brown.

Cases are indexed in the state court system by the plaintiff’s name and cross-referenced by the defendant’s name. In Kramer v. Brown, Kramer is the plaintiff and Brown is the defendant. In a court index, you might find the notation Brown adv. Kramer. “Adv.” stands for adverse, the reverse of versus. In that case, Brown is still the defendant and Kramer is still the plaintiff. Some states use the abbreviation “ats” instead of “adv.”, as an acronym for “at the suit of.” In cases that use “ats,” generally the defendant’s name is the first listed.

Lower court records are also at the county courthouse. Large counties may have annexes or subcourthouses in different locations around the county, for the convenience of the taxpayer. Usually the annex has computer links to the entire courthouse system so that you can run a check from any annex. When in doubt, ask whether a search at an annex will search all the records in the entire county. If not, go to the main courthouse. In smaller, less computerized counties, you probably have to go downtown to the county courthouse to get the information you need.

The clerks working in the clerk of the courts office can direct you to the records you’re looking for and show you how the system is organized.

State Criminal Courts

State criminal courts, not including the appellate courts, are divided into higher and lower courts, just like the civil courts. The criminal courts usually carry the same name as the civil courts. In Florida, they are the circuit court (higher court) and county court (lower court); Arizonans call them the superior court (higher court) and justice court (lower court).

Cases in the state criminal courts are usually prosecuted by attorneys working for the local or county government. They are sometimes called state’s attorneys, district attorneys, or county attorneys. They are, in fact, attorneys for the state, district, or county, which is the plaintiff in criminal actions. These are often elected positions, and the attorneys are usually involved in prosecuting cases that originate with the local police or sheriff’s office. Most states have a state attorney general’s office that may get involved in prosecuting cases that originate with state law enforcement bureaus.

Remember Mary Beth and her abusive husband, Lionel, from earlier in this chapter? Well, had Mary Beth paid a visit to the courthouse and checked the criminal records on her husband-to-be before she married him, she would have found that charges against Lionel were still pending, even as she walked down the aisle at her wedding.

I can’t stress enough the value of checking criminal records on your husband- or wife-to-be prior to getting married. You have all the tools right here in this book to do it yourself. If you grew up with your intended spouse, high school sweethearts and all, maybe you know all there is to know about the person. And those who meet the love of their life online really need to do their homework before committing to this new person.

But do you know your sweetheart’s money-management habits? Has he ever written a bad check? You’d be surprised by how many people have 3, 5, or sometimes as many as 15 bad check charges against them. Often there are even warrants out for their arrest for insufficient funds checks, and they don’t know it. They should know it. They probably received a letter from the prosecuting attorney’s office but never responded. Hence, the warrant is issued. Usually the sheriff is not going to beat down your fiancé’s door (or, if you’re married, your door) at midnight to arrest him. But don’t be surprised when he calls you from jail because he got stopped for speeding, and the policeman found warrants outstanding for the insufficient funds checks. Happens all the time. A 10-minute search through the court records will alert you if your spouse-to-be has this problem.

I know one woman who wrote a bad check for her wedding dress. Imagine her husband’s surprise a year later when he had to pay her bail and pay for the wedding dress, too. When he asked me to look at it, I found that she’d had numerous other bad check charges against her, all dismissed because she’d paid them before the wedding.

Especially if you’re from different towns and states, spend the few dollars or whatever it takes and find out for sure. If you don’t want to do it yourself, hire me or another PI to do it for you.

No magic bullet can guarantee a long, peaceful, and happy marriage. We all know that. But you can sure improve the odds a lot by doing your homework before you wed. Mary Beth wouldn’t be wearing sunglasses today to cover her black eyes had she taken the trouble to check into Lionel’s background. It’s not hard.

Federal Civil and Criminal Courts

The federal judicial system breaks down a little differently than the state systems. Excluding the federal appeals court and the United States Supreme Court, the three basic federal courts are the federal civil courts, federal criminal courts, and bankruptcy courts. I talk about the criminal and civil courts in this section; bankruptcy courts are covered in the next section.

Other than walking into the nearest federal courthouse, you can usually find the answer to your question in the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records; www.pacer.gov) system. All 94 district courts participate in the system.

Each part of the United States, (including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Mariana Islands) is broken down into federal districts. There are 94 federal districts in the United States. Districts don’t cross state boundaries. The districts are also broken down into divisions along geographic and population lines.

To access PACER via the internet, all you need to do is register; you can do so for free, but you have to wait about two weeks to receive your system password by mail. The government will not email or fax it to you.

PACER charges 10¢ per downloaded page. The government will invoice you every three months for usage of the system. If your bill for using the system is less than $15 per quarter, the government will forgive your debt and not expect payment. (It would most likely cost more than that to physically bill you.) Each court maintains its own database, so they are all a little different.

After registering for PACER, be sure to check out the PACER Case Locator, a national index of all of the district court cases that is updated nightly. By utilizing this index, you can conduct a nationwide search for federal court cases involving whatever individual or entity you are interested in. If you find a case that piques your interest, you can go to that file and view the contents.

The PACER Case Locator is a great tool if you don’t know for sure where a particular case may have been filed. In addition to civil cases and bankruptcy cases, you can search for federal criminal cases.

Federal criminal cases are cases brought by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Drug Enforcement Agency; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the Secret Service; Homeland Security; and other federal agencies when they allege a violation of federal law.

By searching the PACER Case Locator, you can basically perform a national federal criminal conviction and national federal civil and bankruptcy search. Don’t confuse this with an NCIC (National Crime Information Center) rap sheet. I talk about rap sheets and the NCIC in Chapter 18.

Bankruptcy Courts

Filing for bankruptcy is a federal matter. Personal and business bankruptcies all fall under federal statutes and are handled in federal court. The bankruptcy law was designed to give insolvent individuals and businesses a fresh start by restructuring their debt or forgiving their loans altogether, depending on the type of bankruptcy involved. Bankruptcy courts are organized differently than the other federal courts, have their own set of rules, and actually trace their origin back to a different part of the Constitution.

Searching the records at bankruptcy court is similar to searching the district courts. Most of the bankruptcy courts are on the PACER system. To understand the records you review, you need to know that bankruptcies are filed under four different chapters:

Chapter 7, liquidation, for individuals and businesses

Chapter 11, reorganization, for larger corporations

Chapter 12, reorganization, for family farmers

Chapter 13, reorganization, for individuals and smaller businesses

Liquidation means all the assets (with some allowable exceptions) are disposed of and all debt (with some exceptions, like debt to the government) are discharged. Reorganization stops collection activity on the part of creditors and gives a business or individual a chance to work out a plan of action in coordination with a trustee appointed by the bankruptcy court.

I get requests to perform due diligence searches all the time. This can be a check of an individual, but more often it’s of a company’s reputation, ability to perform under contract, and verification that no liens or judgments have been filed against it. A good due diligence search also encompasses any lawsuits, pending or potential, or other current or potential areas of liability, such as a pending bankruptcy. Some private investigative agencies do only due diligence searches.

Most clients request a bankruptcy check as part of a due diligence to determine whether the person with whom they are going to be doing business has filed for bankruptcy in the past or is in the middle of a bankruptcy now.

If you’re thinking about doing serious business with a company or individual, check the appropriate bankruptcy court before signing any contracts.

Reducing or Eliminating Your Alimony Payments

So you were the breadwinner and your jerk ex-husband sued for alimony after he left with the new girlfriend. How are you going to get that bum out of your life and off your payroll?

Ralph went to his attorney and posed that question. Florida has a law that allows for the cessation of alimony (Florida Statute 61.14 (1)(b)), which states:

(b)1.The court may reduce or terminate an award of alimony upon specific written findings by the court that since the granting of a divorce and the award of alimony a supportive relationship has existed between the obligee and a person with whom the obligee resides. On the issue of whether alimony should be reduced or terminated under this paragraph, the burden is on the obligor to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a supportive relationship exists.

In plain English, this means that if your ex-spouse is in a “supportive relationship” with another person, your attorney can petition the court to reduce or terminate your obligation to pay alimony. My agency has recently successfully completed a number of these cases. So how do you show the supportive relationship?

If the ex is living with another person, before you pay a lot of money for surveillance, check the public records. See who is paying the utility bill. Find out who owns the house they’re living in. In Ralph’s case, I didn’t know who the boyfriend was or where Ralph’s ex was living. So I put a two-man surveillance team on the ex-wife, Carolyn, and followed her home from work. Not rocket science. In about an hour, the boyfriend showed up. We got the tag off his car and called it quits; we planned to return at 5 the next morning (not my favorite time of day) to document that she’d spent the night there and was living with this guy.

I decided to do a little background on the boyfriend, to see who he was. Did he have a criminal record? Did he own the house where Ralph’s ex, Carolyn, was now living? Carolyn owned another house in a different county that she’d been renting out since she’d moved in with the boyfriend six months previously.

I searched the official records in the other county and found that, three weeks earlier, Carolyn had refinanced her old house and pulled more than a hundred thousand dollars in cash out of it. On the new mortgage, she declared she was a single woman.

In looking through the official records in the new county, I saw that—guess what?—one week after Carolyn refinanced her old house, she and the boyfriend closed on the purchase of the house where they were now living together. And as a sweetener, on the deed and the mortgage, they declared themselves to be husband and wife, even though she kept her old married name.

So somewhere in that week, between the refinance of the old house and the purchase of the new one, they’d gotten married. She hadn’t told her ex and she hadn’t told her children, but who did she tell? The clerk of the court and the entire rest of the world. Ralph’s alimony agreement, like many, included an agreement that the alimony would cease upon Carolyn’s remarriage. Slam dunk, and only one afternoon of surveillance and a quick trip to the courthouse.

The Least You Need to Know

Real property transactions such as sales and mortgages are recorded in the official records of the county and are public records that you can review.

State court systems have higher courts that deal with more important cases (think higher dollars) and lower courts, which handle less important cases (think lower dollars).

The criminal divisions of the state court system are nearly identical to the civil divisions. Higher courts handle felonies, and lower courts deal with misdemeanors.

You can conduct a national search of the federal court system by using the PACER Case Locator.

Some states allow for the reduction or cessation of alimony payments if the ex-spouse is in a supportive relationship with another person. Searching public records can help establish the relationship.