How Do I Find Out if I’m Divorced?

This question was posited by one of our visitors.  It is an excellent question with many potential responses:

If you’re a man, look around your kitchen area.  If you see mostly pizza boxes and plastic microwave dinner trays, or if your “guest” towels have hotel names on them, you might be divorced.

If you’re a woman, if your home is suddenly spotless, and you know where the TV remote is, you might be divorced.

You get the idea.

All kidding aside, last week’s call was typical.  Our visitor wanted to search the national divorce database.

There isn’t one.

But there are quite a few state and local resources that will help, and our directory can point you to the court sites that where you may search “Family Court” records for divorce filings and many have options for downloading or ordering document copies.

Divorce records are usually filed at a civil court in most counties.  It could be a superior, district, or circuit court, depending on the court structure in the state.  Some county courts have a family law division that handles divorces, paternity, and child custody matters.  Keep in mind that not every county provides divorce records online.

Some states (e.g. Kansas) provide a statewide vital records office where you can obtain divorce records from any county in the state.  Other states will do a statewide search for you to verify a divorce, but will not provide copies of the documents.

Then there are difficult states like New York, where divorce records are sealed for 100 years, unless you are one of the spouses, OR you have a NY State Court Order allowing you access to the divorce record.  Check out the New York State Department of Health for more details.

Alaska makes divorce certificates available 50 years after the divorce date, but in the meantime you can access court records to at least see evidence of a divorce filing.

When starting your search, it helps to figure out what each state offers in the divorce record area.  We feel that our divorce records directory page is a logical starting point.

Or you could look outside your window and see how many cars are in the driveway.

Criminal Records – The Beast with 12 Heads

The most common misconception about public records is that “Nationwide” criminal record services (even ours) provide access to ALL records in the United States.

The truth is, each jurisdiction, county, and state has different rules and opinions about what records should be accessible, who may access criminal records, and if they will provide the public access at all. In fact, NO ONE has access to all of the criminal records nationwide, aside from the FBI. So unless you have a friend at the Bureau, you must face the beast with 12 heads. One head is the states like Massachusetts, California, and Louisiana that don’t allow the general public to have access to statewide criminal records. Another head is states like New York that do allow statewide access, but only through an expensive New York State service; no one else may provide access to their records. A third head is jurisdictions like Washoe and Clark Counties in Nevada who provide access to their records online for free—but like New York make sure that they’re the only online providers. The list goes on and on. Get the picture?

We helped a customer who was frustrated after paying to access a few reputable online criminal background databases, only to wind up empty handed. He knew the subject of his search had convictions in the state of Michigan, yet his Nationwide search at one service turned up nothing.

It is easy to understand why the customer was frustrated. We had to reveal the truth about the beast with 12 heads. You cannot enter the Gorgon’s lair with eyes averted and slay the beast with one swing of your sword. You have to go after each head until you know you have dispatched them all.

We put on our research helmets and asked the customer for details on his subject. The man with the criminal record – we’ll call him EDDIE SMITH – was born on January 1, 1970. The customer was certain that Eddie served some time in jail, and was convicted of a felony in Genessee County, MI. The customer needed proof, which is why he paid good money for online background searches.

The first thing we did was bring up the Michigan coverage page for our Premium Criminal Record database. Michigan provides us with data from their OTIS system, which is a tracking database of prisoners, parolees, and probationers who have spent time in the Michigan State prison system. We noted that the OTIS system does not include records for persons who spent time in county jail. That is a different system. The Michigan State Department of Corrections runs the state prisons. Each county runs their own jail. This is true for most U.S. States. If Eddie Smith was sentenced to county jail time only, then OTIS would not have records for him.

That was the situation with state prison records. What about county records and county court records?

Genessee County’s 67th District Court does provide records to outside agencies, but only the misdemeanors. Felonies are not included. This explains why Eddie’s Genessee County felony did not show up.

We assured the customer that paying for a statewide criminal search in Michigan was not a complete waste of time… if Eddie Smith had other types of convictions in Genessee County or other counties in Michigan, the statewide search might have brought those to his attention.

We pointed out to the customer that he could complete his search of Genessee County by using our free criminal records directory, which provides links to databases maintained by the county courts. Using the directory links, he could find other records not included in the statewide databases, like arrest records, jail records, inmate records, etc.

We walked the customer through the steps needed to find those web links on our directory. Starting with our FREE PUBLIC RECORDS LOCATOR tool box on our home page, we asked the customer to use the drop-down menu of the “By Type of Record” tool, where he then selected “Criminal Records.” At the following page, he selected “Michigan Criminal Records” from the list of states. On the Michigan Criminal Records page, we pointed out the link to the Michigan State Police service, where he could pay $10 for an “Official” Michigan criminal history.

Scrolling down further on the page, we found the link to the Genessee County 67th District Court site, where we ran a free search for Eddie Smith. This court site includes both felonies and misdemeanors… and there we found the record for Smith’s felony conviction, which indicated that state prison time was not required. The customer printed out the details for free.

Feeling empowered now with his free membership and newfound knowledge, the customer thanked us and went on to research criminal records for other subjects in his file. There may be 12 heads to this beast, but we provide the weapons to find and strike them down.

There Goes the Neighborhood

Another one from our customer service archives…

Dear S.,

Hope you are well. I have another question for you. We are looking to buy a new house. We’d hate to move next door to someone who had barking dog complaints filed against them… or people who were reported for loud music, etc. Any way to research an address and find out more about the neighborhood?

Hi J,

Good luck on the possible new home purchase. A surveil of the neighborhood would be a good move. Do you have a particular house in mind or neighborhood/town/city? You can look in our directory to see if that city’s police department posts a “blotter” of incident reports. In big areas like LA and its suburbs, these incident reports are likely to contain only the more dramatic incidents, like burglaries, arrests, etc. But you never know. In more rural areas of the country, where the police have more time to update their websites, and less crime going around, you may find incident reports about noise complaints, altercations, or even runaway goats. Here’s one example of a police incident database, from Little Rock, AR. This site allows you to search by date, address, and incident type.

Pasadena, CA has a daily crime mapping site but I suspect it only reports major crimes. Still, you might want to find that neighborhood on this map and see if it is getting any unwanted “action”.

To see if your city has a site like that, click on the United States Free Public Records by State heading on our home page, then select your State. On the state page, you’ll see a link for Cities & Towns. Another way to get to links for your city is to use the “By City” search field in our Free Public Records Locator tool menu.

Once you’re looking at a specific home on the market, I might suggest taking a walk around the block at various times of day. Afternoon, after dinner, etc. That will give you much more observations about the street than just driving by. If dogs are a concern, you might want to walk near the house with your own dog (or borrow a friend’s). That will get every dog on the street out to the side gates, barking at you. Then you’ll know where the loud dogs are, and whether the owners keep them indoors or outdoors. There is a difference between a good guard dog and a yappy nuisance, so take that into consideration.

Another idea, if you’re bold enough, is to knock on a few doors and introduce yourself as a potential neighbor. It would take tact though, to ask about noisy residents on the block, as the person you’re speaking with might BE the noisy one. One idea is to ask around if the street has a Neighborhood Watch program and find out who runs it. Talk to that person and you’ll have a line in to all the gossip in the neighborhood. We have a person like that on our street and she knows all the issues between all the residents.

Want to know if they’re Wanted?

Ruth, a frequent visitor to our website, wrote to us with an interesting dilemma. She’d recently hired a handyman to fix a few things at her place in Nevada, and was considering him for a much larger job. The man asked to be paid up front, in cash. While the initial work met with Ruth’s satisfaction, her gut told her that she shouldn’t place too much trust in this new handyman.

Ruth knew that the man had recently moved from Arizona and she did a criminal background check on him in that state. The search returned no results. Still, Ruth was suspicious. She’d seen the man snooping around in the bedrooms and his story about his time in Arizona felt shaky to her.

I suggested that she perform a criminal wants & warrants search on the man’s name in Nevada and also in his home state of Arizona. While he may not have convictions on his record, he could have active warrants. That could explain why he moved out of state.

I showed Ruth how to reach our Criminal Wants & Warrants page, which lists several nationwide links, like the one for the FBI Most Wanted and Department of Justice Most Wanted. There is even one for NCIS Most Wanted Fugitives. The real fugitives, not the ones that Mark Harmon tracks down on television.

Also on that directory page are the state categories for wants & warrants databases. Ruth visited the Nevada Wants & Warrants page, but there are only links for the “most wanted” fugitives in that state. Smaller profile fugitives are not listed.

Ruth then tried the Arizona Wants & Warrants page and went to the link for Maricopa County, AZ. They have a handy active warrant search page that allows you to search for warrants by name, or simply click on alphabetical letters to display all active warrants by last name. The letter M has 5249 active warrants alone!

Ruth was not surprised to find that her handyman did have an active warrant. She even used the “tip tool” feature on the Maricopa County database to send in details about the handyman, including his present whereabouts. As it turned out, he never showed up the following week for the big job. Perhaps he was picked up by local authorities and shipped back to Arizona to face the music? I told Ruth to check the active warrant site again in a week or so and see if his name had been removed.

Ruth is now looking for a more qualified handyman. If you can recommend one, let us know.

A Murder in Texas

Today a customer wrote to us, perplexed at the results of his Premium Texas statewide criminal records search. This customer, whom we will call “Frank,” expected to find a number of criminal records for “BOBBIE RAY TATES,” including a notable conviction for the murder of wife CAROLYN TATES in August 2006. Instead, Frank’s search results came back saying “No Records Found.”

We double-checked our criminal record coverage for Texas and confirmed it is one of the best states in which to research criminal records. We have information from almost all of the county courts, and also statewide records from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which include court records and inmate records. So why didn’t anything for Bobbie Ray Tates turn up? Frank was certain about the murder conviction.

We wondered if Frank was as certain about Tates’ legal name and date of birth. Bobbie could be a nickname for Robert. Birth dates can be transposed by accident. We asked Frank if he knew the county in which this supposed conviction occurred. He believed it was Brazos County, TX.

Again we checked our coverage in Texas and determined that Brazos County contributes records to our Premium database on a monthly basis that include both felony and misdemeanor convictions since 1988.

Using our directory page for Texas Criminal Records, we clicked on a link to Brazos County Inmates. At that county site, we searched the name “Bobbie Tates.” Lo and behold, a list of 10 jail records appeared. Most were overnight jail stays courtesy of Tates’ frequent DWI arrests. The most recent record was a 2-year sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Tates was convicted on August 26, 2006, and according to the jail record, was released on February 25, 2008. Could he be walking around free? Was he not convicted of murder?

Or were we looking at records for the wrong man? The name listed on the jail records was “Bobbie Ray Tates” with the date of birth July 9, 1953. We checked the search query done by Frank on our site. He searched for “Bobbie R. Tates” and used a year-of-birth search, plus or minus 3 years in either direction. The year Frank typed in was 1961, so his search covered 1958 through 1964, and missed 1953.

Or was it still possible that Texas had two convicts with the same name? An online people-search could have given Frank a free preview of all persons named Bobbie R. Tates with address histories in Brazos County, TX… and even given approximate ages for them. We tried the same and discovered – free of charge – that the family of Bobbie and Carolyn Tates in Bryan, Texas (Brazos County) included two persons with the name “Bobbie R. Tates” – one age 57 and another age 36. The younger could be a son, or even a typo. Age 57 sounded about right for a person born in 1953.

Using our Texas Criminal Records page, we clicked on the link for Brazos County Criminal Court Records. We searched “Bobbie Tates” there and got a few additional records that did not appear on the county’s inmate search. We found a November 2006 murder conviction for Bobbie Ray Tates, born July 9, 1953. Now we were certain that we had found the correct record and that the man Frank was searching for was actually born in 1953.

The lesson here: In a state like Texas, you can search the county court sites for free and find records using only a first and last name. On the other hand, if you want to do a single statewide search, you will need to know the correct birth date for the subject. Otherwise, you may be chasing records for the wrong person, or not finding them at all. The criminal records retrieval system presented by the counties and states is far from perfect. A savvy researcher needs to use more than one tool from the drawer.

But this puzzle was not yet complete. We were still curious as to the present whereabouts of Mr. Tates. Was he really released in February 2008 after completing his sentence for the assault conviction? Or was that a primary sentence that became a longer stay once the murder conviction was handed down in November 2006?

Frank used our Texas Criminal Records page to find the link to a database of Texas Death Row Inmates, but Bobbie Ray Tates was not listed among those unfortunate souls. We checked the VineLink website for Texas statewide inmates, but it brought back no results for “Bobbie Tates” or “Robert Tates.” Then we noticed that VineLink’s Texas page has a disclaimer that it does not include records from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). That is a very large omission.

Using our Texas Criminal Records page, we used the link to the TDCJ website search page, where we searched the name “Bobbie Tates.” After a significant wait time from their server, we found the answer to the final question: Tates is presently incarcerated in the Stiles prison facility in Beaumont, TX, doing a 40 year stretch for murder.

If Frank had run his Bobbie Tates Premium search with a 7-year year of birth range that included 1953, he would have found not only the current TDCJ inmate record for Tates, but all of his state, county and local criminal records over the years, including the tragic 2006 murder of his wife.

Professional Licenses

Eddie, a new visitor to the Search Systems website, wrote to us today with a question about Professional Licenses in New Jersey. Eddie is thinking of putting his house on the market but has a few qualms about working with realtors based on his last tumultuous property sale. He wanted to know where he could review real estate licenses to be sure his new realtor was qualified, licensed, and had no black marks on his or her record. Was that information available to the public and could it be found on the Internet?

I told Eddie he was in luck. License information is provided in New Jersey, and in most other states, through free online databases. By using our “By Type of Record” tool in the Free Public Records Locator box on our home page, we selected “Licenses” and then selected “New Jersey” from the list of states on the Professional Licenses page. We scrolled through the many pages of licenses listed there for New Jersey – a total of 113. On Page 2 Eddie found a link for Real Estate licenses and another for Real Estate – Disciplinary Actions.

Eddie was able to verify the licenses for a few potential realtors, and he also checked to be sure they did not have disciplinary actions on file. When Eddie returned to the New Jersey licenses directory page, he discovered many other types of licenses he could verify. Contractors, electricians, home inspectors… even locksmiths and alarm installation companies. He was determined to screen everyone that he might hire to fix up his property prior to the listing.

Day of Judgments

A customer named Dan called us after paying for a $5.00 Bankruptcy, Judgment & Tax Lien search through our Premium service. His search in Nevada brought up a 2010 judgment for the subject “EDWARD L. STEVENS” but it did not return a result for a 2005 judgment that Dan found using another online service.

Dan explained that the 2005 judgment in Clark County, NV against Edward Stevens was for $2,250, and awarded to Players Place, LLC. Dan wanted to know why our system didn’t show this judgment. Ours only showed him the 2010 judgment in the amount of $500, awarded to a medical office. We added that there were actually two questions we needed to answer: 1) Why isn’t the 2005 judgment in our database? and 2) Why isn’t the 2010 judgment in the database of the other service Dan used?

We explained to Dan that both online services he used are third party vendors. Search Systems gets the bankruptcy, judgment and tax lien data from the county courts at regular intervals. To uncover the full truth about both judgments, we should look at the source of these filings – the Clark County Clerk-Recorder’s Office.

Using our free public records directory, we visited the Recorded Documents page for Nevada and clicked on the link for Clark County Recorded Documents. That brought us to a search page, where we input the name of the defendant: “Edward Stevens.” Scrolling through the results, we found both judgments and verified their filings numbers with the results Dan had from his pay searches. As it turned out, the County showed us that the 2005 judgment was satisfied and the 2010 judgment was still open. The reason the 2005 judgment did not appear in our pay database is likely because it was satisfied and the court amended their data upload to us, removing the record from view.

So why did Dan’s first pay search at the other online service not show the satisfaction of the 2005 judgment? Why did that service not show the 2010 judgment at all? As we’re not privy to the details of the other company’s database we can only make an educated guess. We believe their judgment database is outdated and static. If they aren’t receiving regular updates from the sources (the courts), then satisfied judgments are still showing as outstanding. And more recent filings do not appear at all.

By using both the pay search and the free directory at Search Systems, we were able to get the full picture on the debts owed by Edward Stevens. This is a good reminder about how important it is to make sure your sources are giving you current, complete information. Otherwise, you could make the wrong judgment about your research subject.

What’s Vital in Rhode Island

Mary called us today in regards to a genealogy project. Mary’s family is largely based in Rhode Island and she is trying to obtain vital records documents from that state. Mary needs death records for a few family members, birth records for a few others, and a couple of marriage license copies and divorce records as well.

First I directed Mary to our main Rhode Island Vital Records page. This page explains where the various vital records are stored. In addition to linking to our directories for births, deaths, and marriages in Rhode Island, the page also lists seven main resources for vital records. For a state as small as Rhode Island, that is a remarkable number of statewide resources for vital records.

The page tells us that the city and town clerk offices are the best places to find vital records, but you need to know the specific city or town where these events occurred.

For a search of older records statewide, we recommend a visit to the Rhode Island Department of Health, where you can find Birth Records since 1899, Death Records since 1949, and Marriage Records since 1899.

Another resource is the Family History Center, run by the Mormon folks at the Church of Latter Day Saints. The Family History Center has all vital records on microfilm from the colonial times to the present except divorce records.

On our Vital Records page, we list an address for the Rhode Island State Archives, where you can research birth, marriage and death records since 1853. Some older records are available there as well.

The Rhode Island Historical Society also offers many vital records from the time period covered by the State Archives, but it also claims to have divorce records as well.

Additionally, for divorces prior to 1962, you can turn to the RI Supreme Court Judicial Records Center. For divorces after 1962, you can research at Family Court in Providence, RI.

With so much information available from so many resources, Mary is sure to discover many interesting facts about her family members.

When Criminal Record Searches Go Awry

One of our customers, whom we’ll call Ronald L. Smith, Jr., contacted us to seek help with a criminal record search in the state of North Carolina. Ron performed two searches on his own name using our huge Premium Criminal Record Database that contains over 400 million records. Neither search produced any results, and as Ron knows that he has criminal convictions on his record, he reached out to us for an explanation. Was the database flawed or incomplete?

As it turned out, it’s neither. The database is complete and the powerful search features offered by the service helped us to locate all of the records Ron was searching for. Here’s what happened…

On the first search he used the Personal Search advanced page. He input the nickname “Ron” to search and checked that he wanted an “Exact” name search. The system then looked only for records that exactly matched the first name “Ron” (and a last name of Smith) and the results came up “no record” because they’re listed in court records under the name of “Ronald Smith.”

If Ron had asked for an exact name search and “Ronald” as the first name, or left the “Exact” name search unchecked, he would have received his records. We provide concise instructions and encourage people to read them before they do a search. It is best to search by full legal name, or do a partial name search if you aren’t sure of the name on record. So do a partial name search on “Ron” and you’ll get “Ron,” “Ronnie,” “Ronald,” etc. Or do a partial name search on “Ric” and you’ll get “Rick,” “Rickie,” “Richard,” “Ricardo,” etc. That way if someone does give a nickname to the court or the police, you stand a better chance of finding the record.

On the second search, Ron searched the same name, and this time unchecked the “Exact Name” box, which is the right thing to do if you’re searching a partial name. But in the second search he added “Jr” after the last name. We strongly advise against inputting information such as Jr., Sr., M.D., etc, into a search field. Right above the search fields we state: “Please fill out the required fields below. Please DO NOT include suffixes such as Jr., Sr., III, M.D., and PhD in the first or last name fields.” The reason we ask that people not to include suffixes is that most courts don’t include suffixes when they list a court record. Electronic databases match the input information to database records. Since the courts didn’t add “Jr.” to the records, the search result came up “no records found.”

We performed a statewide search ourselves in North Carolina and found a number of records for Ronald L. Smith, matching the customer’s birth date, which we forwarded to the customer. Our criminal records database offers powerful search features, but like any sophisticated tool, it demands a bit of respect and study before you use it. For more tips, use our Criminal Records Best Practices Guide. For a listing of the jurisdictions covered in each state, go here.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Jail?

Arrested June 3, 2010, but you may not have noticed. The incident did not garner much press. If a reporter had uncovered this arrest record and printed a story about the Lakers Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar being incarcerated in Columbia County, Georgia, he or she would have been forced to print an embarrassing retraction.

Why? Go to the Georgia criminal records directory and click on the link for “Columbia County Inmates,” you’ll see that a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was arrested on June 3, 2010 for parole violation. If you look at the details, you’ll see the age of this suspect is 25. The very sad looking character is clearly not the same individual as the Lakers’ skyhook king who made wrap-around sports glasses look chic.

This illustrates just how imperative it is that when you perform a criminal records search that you check the age or birth date of the subject. Many names are common and even a highly unique name like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not unique enough.

Another example is one of an unemployed man we’ll call George Smith who used our Premium criminal records search to perform a check on himself. He wanted an exact search of his name and exact date of birth, so he could print the No Results Found page to exonerate himself. George’s problem was that he applied for a job and when the employer ran a registered offender check, a record appeared for another George Smith born the same year. The employer didn’t bother to look at the finer details such as exact date of birth, and simply assumed the applicant was a Level 3 Offender. As our George put it, “They ran me out of their office with a stick!”

Researchers can cause damage and confusion if they mistakenly match a criminal record to the wrong person. So how do you avoid making this mistake? First of all, know the date of birth of the person you are searching. If you find records that don’t include a date of birth (many jurisdictions omit that information from their results), you need to dig further, perhaps at the county court itself, to either find the date of birth, or other information that will allow you to determine whether or not the record matches your subject. Often records will include an address or a physical description of the person.

In addition to our nationwide criminal records database we also offer an index to local government databases such as courts, sheriff departments, and corrections departments. Using those tools, you can research at the source to get the full truth.