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Can public records help locate a missing witness?

Jeremy Byellin

In the chess game of litigation, witnesses are often some of the most important pieces on the board. Their testimony can protect your “king” — that is, your client’s interests in the legal matter — while pressuring your opponent’s own “king.”

Unfortunately, unlike in chess, the pieces aren’t already neatly arranged before the game begins. Instead, the players — that is, the attorneys — need to find the necessary pieces and then position them on the board themselves to ensure that their respective strategies are as successful as possible.

However, sometimes important pieces —such as witnesses — are missing and can’t be located easily. Maybe the attorney has a name of a witness, but little else. How can the attorney find this potentially important individual?

One of the most reliable methods of locating missing witnesses is through a public records search. Even starting an online people search with relatively little information can yield surprisingly robust results to help locate your target.

For example, let’s start with perhaps the most plainly used type of information for locating individuals: address and utilities records.

Searches through these databases can provide a number of addresses associated with an individual, and if you should happen to have the general geographic area in which this person is believed to reside, you may be able to obtain the missing witness’s home address, or at least a list of potential addresses to begin your search.

Similarly, real property title records can also locate a missing witness, should that witness be a registered owner of any real estate. Without additional identifying information such as a date of birth, however, you may be forced to filter through a number of false positives in your search results, especially if the witness has even a relatively common name.

Another source of address information is the records at the Department of Motor Vehicles (the DMV). Once again, with only a name and general geographic area to enter into the database, you may have to sift through a pile of unrelated individual entries and spend precious time digging out the actual witness for whom you are searching.

Other avenues to search

If your witness has a common name and you foresee having a headache’s worth of false positives clogging up your search results, there are a number of other public records databases that, while not readily yielding address or other contact information, may provide other identifying information to use in your searches and allow you to substantially narrow down the results.

Generally, the first place to start for this is on the web — specifically, in the missing witness’s presence on social media, blogs, and other websites. One may question how combing through a reservoir of information like the internet will end up saving time in the end. The short answer is that social media resources provide several types of information that many other public records do not, such as photographs, videos, and a potential list of self-disclosed associates.

Imagine this scenario: Your client knows the witness’s name and general appearance, but very little else. Scouring through the social media accounts of a number of individuals with the same name as your missing witness may suddenly become much easier if your client is able to positively identify the witness from some other markers on the account, such as a photograph. Alternatively, a witness’s social media account may be identified through the recognition of one of the witness’s known associates as one of the witness’s “friends” or “followers.”

Most public records search platforms can collect and arrange social media and other web information more comprehensively and effectively, thus limiting the time you spend tediously searching yourself. And the information discovered on the witness’s social media page can then be used to supplement your investigation into other public records databases. Indeed, including social media searches as part of a large online public record search could allow you to narrow the search results or even locate the witness outright.

If you don’t have much luck with online sources, however, you can yet consider exploring court records relating to the missing witness. While the most important piece of information to be gained from such a search isn’t information about the legal matters themselves (although such information could be important later on), rather, the most important information that court records may yield is the individual’s date of birth.

Any civil or criminal court proceedings involving the individual as a party will include that person’s date of birth. Even if the exact age of the witness isn’t known, it’s quite likely that you or your client have some idea about the witness’s age range, which can by itself narrow the potential candidates in a search result to just a select few — or, again, it could even positively identify the witness in question.

Once armed with the individual’s exact date of birth, searching utility and real property records to produce the witness’s address becomes a much less difficult undertaking. And even in the unlikely scenario that one has little luck locating a witness through any of these methods, public records are so expansive that, with a bit of creativity, very few individuals are completely undiscoverable.    

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