The Difference Between a Name Search and a Document Request


The Difference Between a Name Search and a Document Request

Editor’s Note: Mike Sankey is a true pioneer the field of Public Research. He is regarded as a leading industry expert in public records, criminal record access, state DMV policies and procedures, as well as knowing who’s who in the commercial arena of public information vendors. The following article comes from his book, The Public Record Research Tips Book. (Click on the link if you are interested in learning more about this book.) NF

One of the most enlightening concepts that casual requesters often discover is that “name search” will often find the location of a record or determine if a record exists, but will not uncover the record itself. There is a significant difference between searching an index to determine if a public record exists versus viewing an image or obtaining copies of documents in the record file. Many times the latter cannot be accomplished without first doing the former.

Depending on the type of public record, the reality is that many online record sites will not enable you to view an image of a document. This is especially true when searching court records or real estate recordings. However, these sites will let you know if records exist and may provide some identifiers if you are doing a name search.

Name Searching

Let us say you wish to determine if an individual has a criminal record or, say, if an individual has collateralized certain assets such as a real estate holding or ownership of equipment used in a business. The best way to perform this research is to do a “name search” – also known as an “alpha search” – of an index at the government agency that holds the records.

However, name searching is not always an easy task. An index may or may not contain the middle initial or the date of birth. Most indices no longer show the full or even a partial Social Security Number due to privacy concerns. Obviously, having this additional information – often referred to as “PI” which stands for “personal identifiers” – can be quite helpful as discussed below. Since many agencies withhold personal identifiers from appearing on the web, using an Internet site to perform a name search on such a site has lesser value and is often merely a supplemental search.

Other agencies, such as many of the county-based Supreme Courts in New York, refuse to allow the public to view an index online or in person AND refuse to perform a name search. For example, most New York courts direct searchers of criminal records to the New York State Office of Court Administration (OCA) for an online statewide criminal history search (CHRS) for a $55 fee.

Another problem when performing name searches is the correct spelling or variation of the name. There can be typos in the index and records could be filed under a variation of a first name (Ted vs. Theodore, Robert vs. Bob, Deborah vs. Debra vs. Debbie, etc.). Knowing how to maneuver through an agencies index, be it on-site or online, is quite important and worth investigating.

Requesting a Specific Document

When you know the “document number” or exact location of a record, it becomes much easier to view or obtain a copy. Some online sites provide this service, but most do not. If you are requesting a specific document in person or by mail, the government personnel are much more apt to help you compared to asking them to do a name search.

Using a government web page to search for a specific document is often easier when you have the document number or an identifier like the court docket number.

The Importance of Identifiers

Identifiers serve two different, though related purposes.

First, the identifiers of the subject must be used to analyze a public record for the purpose of determining if the record is about the subject. Perhaps the records are indexed by the last name and also by either the DOB or part of a SSN. If so, the searcher needs a DOB or SSN to search accurately.

Second, the identifiers act as an important safeguard for both the requesting party and the subject of the search. There is always the chance that the “Harold Johnson” on whom a given repository has a record is not the same “Harold Johnson” on whom a check has been requested. The possibility of a misidentification can be decreased substantially if other identifiers can match the individual to the record. Providing an identifier as simple as a middle initial is likely to identify the correct Harold Johnson.

The federal, state, and local agencies that maintain public record systems make substantial efforts to limit the disclosure of personal information such as Social Security Numbers, phone numbers, and addresses. The Social Security Number is no longer the key search tool identifier it was in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The lack of identifiers displayed when searching online is a real problem for employers or financial institutions who require a certain level of due diligence. The existence of any possible adverse information must be checked by a hands-on search to insure the proper identity of the subject. Even then the identifiers may be removed.

The government agencies that offer online access on a fee or subscription basis – usually to pre-approved requesters – are more apt to disclose personal identifiers such as the date of birth, than the free access sites. Very few give Social Security Numbers and those that do usually cloak or mask the first five digits. Some now even cloak the month and day of the birth and only release the year of birth. For example, most U.S. District Court and Bankruptcy Court PACER search systems give little (sometimes only the last four digits of SSN and no DOB) or no personal identifiers at all on search results, thus making a reliable “name search” nearly impossible.

What If the Index Doesn’t Have Matching Identifiers?

You will often find that an online index of government agencies records does not contain a personal identifier. In that situation, one must search within in the record file itself or in associated paperwork.

For example, let us say you are searching for a record on Joe B. Cool with a DOB of 01/01/1985. And let us say the index gives you an index showing a possible record match of J Cool with no DOB, and another possible match with a Joseph Cool with a partial DOB match. The next step is to examine the two files. The content in the file may contain the matching personal identifiers you are looking for. If you are a professional and the highest form of accuracy is vital, then you may have times where a common name requires you to view dozens of files.

The Public Record Research Tips Book is a great resource for searching techniques and procedures you can use if you need to search for records on-site and you only have a name.

The Redaction Trend

Redaction is simply removing or hiding certain elements within a record itself or the record index. Almost daily news stories appear related to ongoing privacy debates and efforts to remove personal identifiers from public records.

In some cases, the anticipated cost of redacting records is forcing government agencies to instead block public access to the records. Yet at the same time many government officials understand the importance and benefits attached to the openness of public records. The balance of privacy interests versus public jeopardy goes beyond the purposes of this book. However, the key point here is to be aware of change and know that redactions can and will alter public record searching procedures.

©2008 By Michael Sankey and BRB Publications, Inc.

Michael Sankey is founder and CEO of BRB Publications, Inc and Co-Director of the Public Record Retriever Network, the nation’s largest membership organization of professionals in the public record industry. Michael has more than 25 years of experience in research and public record access. He has authored or edited over 75 publications.

To contact Michael, please email him at or call 480-829-7475.

If you liked this article, check out the following links:

The Importance of Personal Identifiers in a Criminal Background Check
Searching Criminal Records
BRB Publications
The Many Terms and Meanings of Criminal Non-Convictions
[New York Office of Court Administration

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