Inside Track: Searching Public Records, Like Legal Research, Is No Picnic:

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  • Searching Public Records, Like Legal Research, Is No Picnic

    Finding public records information can be frustrating. While free and contract services are available, there is no single provider of all public records. A typical search will likely require using multiple resources.

    Aly Lynch

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    July 3, 2013 – Access to public records varies from state to state, website to website, and even among different agencies within a state. Some states or sites provide full-text images, while others provide pieces of information. Depending on the agency, access to public records may be provided through a variety of third-party providers, an exclusive arrangement with one third-party provider, the agency’s website directly, or by contacting their offices directly.

    Aly LynchAly Lynch, Marquette 2007, is the director of administration at Hawks Quindel S.C., Madison.

    In addition, there are two major privacy laws, the Drivers’ Privacy Protection Act and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which limit access to private or sensitive information to those who have “permissible uses” for that information. However, a variety of information is generally available, including birth, death, marriage, divorce, cemetery, genealogy, professional license, military, corporate, bankruptcy, real property and other asset, and criminal, as well as lists of relatives and neighbors.

    Contract Services Available

    Piecing information together from various resources can be frustrating. Depending on the frequency of your public records research needs, it may make sense to use a comprehensive service, such as LexisNexis Accurint or Thomson Reuters CLEAR, which can provide a search across many different types of records in one place. It is important to note that, due to varying contracts between these service providers and the agencies or other organizations from which the information comes, any given provider may not have access to all the information you desire. For example, birth records in Sawyer County, Wis., may be available in one service, but not in another.

    Free and Low-cost Public Records Information Sites

    If you do not need access to public records frequently, you can access some of this information for just a few dollars per search through these sites:

    Some websites provide information about how to conduct public records research online by state, which makes the research a little easier.

    The Wisconsin State Law Library provides a Public Records topic page on its website with links to resources providing various types of records in Wisconsin. None of these resources give you a single provider of all public records, but you can at least see a rundown of what resources provide which types of information and what you need to do to get public records from those resources. In public records research, as with legal research, you may need to search multiple resources to uncover a complete picture of the information you seek.