Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Searching Court Records

I first got interested in becoming a private investigator years ago. I'm not sure exactly what led me to think this was the job for me but I know I was spending a considerable amount of time researching my families genealogy and as such, countless hours in courthouse record rooms.

Here in Virginia there are several types of records rooms. Each court is different. some have open access rooms in which you just walk in and never encounter a worker unless you want to. Others have rooms you must bypass the counter so they know you're there. A few I've been too had the books behind glass windows and you had to know what you were looking for and ask for it specifically.

Regardless of how you get to the indexes and records, there are many common elements in what you will find while searching.

Always start with the indexes. Not just one because then you'll be missing half of the information. Start with the index that has information you're certain about first. So if you were looking to find out who John Doe married in 1974, then you would pick up the index for grooms starting with the letter "D" and covering the year mentioned. Most indexes cover a span of several years.

As you go through the index, you'll notice the headings on the pages are listed 'Da-De' or in some similar fashion. Find the section that covers 'Do' and then scan all the listings. The list on the page will not be alphabetical but is listed by date. So if the page started in 1965, scan the date column until you find 1974.

It's important that if you don't find John Do in 1974 that you search subsequent years. Typos are a fact of human life and maybe he got married in 1973 or 1975. If I were searching and I didn't find him in the right year, I would scan the entire page by name. It takes only a few seconds and could produce the information you are looking for.

Once you find John Doe, make note of the line number his name is listed on. Most indexes span 2 pages and they are not always lined up perfectly. Then slide your finger along the line until you reach the end of that page. Where the book creases, look for the same line number on the second part of the page and continue sliding your finger along that line to see the rest of his information.

Typically in marriage registers you can find the names of the grooms and brides parents, birth dates, city and/or state of birth and age at time of marriage. Sometimes the officiating minister is also listed. Write all the information you find down in your notebook. Even the tiniest piece of data could be useful. Maybe the happy couple still attends the same church and you can find bulletins detailing more information of their lives.

When it comes to deeds you can find when the land was bought and sold and for how much. There should also be a plot number listed. When you have a plot number, you can look in the plat books. These are massive books, so be prepared for some heavy lifting if you need to see the boundaries of a property. Actually, most courthouse books are heavy but these are extra heavy and bulky.

Pay close attention to who bought and sold the land or how it was awarded. This could lead you to a will if the property changed hands from relative to relative. Or there could be evidence of laundering - hiding assets without losing them - via transference to a spouse or relative. These documents could also show that your suspect has more disposable income than they report to have. Deeds almost always list a lien holder if there is one. If there's not, then your suspect paid in full at the time of sale.

This isn't always a red flag. If he purchased the property from a government auction or foreclosure sale, financing may not have been an option or the price may have been low enough he could get it cheap. The answers are all in the details.

Why would you need to know this? There's a variety of reasons. Knowing how a plat is laid out could benefit you if you're going into a rural area for a case. On large plats of land there are likely to be multiple exits. So, you would want to drive around the area and look for all possible exits. If the plat is large, you can determine just how far you need to go and how feasible it is.

Criminal records obviously point to whether or not your suspect has a criminal record. These are a no-brainer. While you're in the room with the criminal records, be sure to check both civil indexes and chancery. These include divorce records, restraining orders and many other complaints that may or may not result in punishment and fines. They also include valuable address information many times and can lead you to validate social connections.

Last but not least, always check the Wills indexes. They may not seem very useful but can lead you to important clues as to property owned by the suspect, as in guns his grandfather may have left him that aren't registered, and family connections.

Often you can find most of these records online and you won't even need to go to the courthouse. Virginia has a healthy online system of records for many of the court systems. It includes criminal, civil, general district, traffic and appeals cases. For wills and chancery you still have to go to the courthouse. Plats can be found at the link below.

Virginia Courts Online Case Information
Virginia GIS Sites

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