HONING YOUR INVESTIGATIVE PARALEGAL SKILLS: TIPS FROM A PI

David C. Childe, CFA, as given to the Greater Memphis Paralegal Association July 23, 2014

 

Paralegals and private investigators enjoy a symbiotic working relationship. 

Both groups do legal research and legal investigation, although paralegals are better known for the former and investigators for the latter. The name of my firm is a tribute to the intertwined nature of these disciplines. Before establishing Legal Research & Investigation, I saw the wisdom of taking a number of paralegal courses at Southwest Community College. This knowledge – particularly the evidence, procedure, legal research, and legal writing courses – has been of incalculable help to me as a legal investigator.

As shown below, a seasoned and well-rounded paralegal is intimately familiar with most of the trial preparation components that a private investigator may be assigned. The main exceptions are service of process and surveillance – although inputs provided by the paralegal can still be of enormous benefit in these tasks.

  • Pre-litigation investigation – facts
  • Pre-litigation investigation – assets
  • Service of the complaint and summons
  • Assistance with the development of the trial notebook
  • Finding new witnesses
  • Interviewing all key witnesses
  • Service of the witnesses, particularly the difficult locates
  • Development of background and impeachment material pre-deposition
  • Conducting surveillance
  • Analysis of the deposition transcripts for inconsistencies
  • Backgrounding of all witnesses, particularly experts
  • Backgrounding of the jury pool
  • Testifying at trial
  • Polling the jury post-trial
  • Asset locate (including forensic accounting) if judgment is won

The degree of investigator involvement on potentially overlapping tasks is usually a function of trial strategy, not necessarily differences in skill-set. For example, any situation that may involve testifying is usually left to the private investigator, who is hired as an independent contractor and who doesn’t risk getting disqualified form the case if he testifies.

So, with that spirit of teamwork, let’s delve into the material!


Working together on locates

Complementary databases

Process server inputs

Use of paralegal research.

Data from interrogatories.


Advanced tips on locates.

Momma always knows

Skiptrace the girlfriend

The classic “do not forward” letter

Run the name in the paid databases a few different ways

If all you have is a name . . . here’s a free way to get the date-of-birth.

Run the last-known address and carefully analyze findings

Run any known close relatives

Run the Shelby County arrest screen, which is called JSSI

Obtain misdemeanor citation affidavits.

Obtain recent traffic tickets

Obtain incident and accident reports

Call the last landlord

Do a thorough “neighborhood”

Last but not least . . . mother ALWAYS knows!

A few words on optimizing the utility of the free portions of locate databases


Deep backgrounding of subjects

A high-quality background investigation can be viewed as a mosaic

A criminal background investigation usually starts with the locate

Use the locate information for the other local pieces of the investigation

Incident reports, incident reports, incident reports!!!

Do everything possible to obtain the resume

Comb through the entire bankruptcy and/or divorce jackets.

Tips on searching with google

How to search facebook cleverly

Tips on finding employment information and finding ex-employees


Questions and Answers


Working together on locates

Complementary databases. Law firms generally use Lexis-Nexis/Accurint products. Private investigators tend to opt for TLO/Merlin, IRB, LocatePlus, or Skip Smasher – which may not be available to non-collection-oriented law firms. Oftentimes these databases are complementary rather than redundant. Comparing notes can therefore yield good addresses far more often than either of us working independently.

Process server inputs. Knowing the methodology and frustrations of the server can oftentimes solve the location problem in itself. Why was the NTBF issued? Surprisingly, it has been my experience that about half of the NTBFs are really not a locate problem . . . rather, they are a getting the subject to the door problem. The paralegal can provide the investigator with the backstory on the serve, which will dictate the tactics he will use to effect it successfully the next time.

Use of paralegal research. Unless it is a pre-litigation investigation, normally by the time an investigator is brought in the paralegal will be well-versed on the players involved in the case. More often than not, witnesses already cultivated by the paralegal will know the subject we are trying to find. Inputs from these associates/relatives can be invaluable in trying to find an elusive subject.

Data from interrogatories. These discovery materials should contain the subject’s last known address information and employment history. Granted, the probability that this person is still living or working at these locations is small (otherwise the investigator would probably not have to be brought in); however, these data points serve as excellent references in efficiently starting the locate investigation. If enough former neighbors and former co-workers are contacted, it is highly likely that one of them will know the current whereabouts of the individual.


Some advanced tips on locates.

Momma always knows. Yet she probably won’t tell. Even when people go through their darkest periods, they do call their mommas . . . if for no other reason than to ask for money. And, no matter how despicable the individual, momma is loathe to tell where they are. Yet a good investigator knows how to coax it out of momma. So, with a difficult subject, locating Momma should be viewed as just as important as making the direct effort to locate the target individual.

Skiptrace the girlfriend. Find the girlfriend . . . find the subject. Many people who are hard to locate don’t have anything tangible in their names. This might be for nefarious reasons or it may not be. Either way, someone close to them will have the lease, utilities, magazine subscriptions etc. in their names, thereby allowing the subject to live a reasonably normal life while maintaining a degree of privacy. The enabling person will usually be the girlfriend or wife, but could also be a parent or adult child.

The classic “do not forward” letter. This is the oldest trick in the book and still works a reasonably high percentage of the time – primarily because the postal service is not allowed to sell this information to the database information brokers.
Send a blank letter to the subject with “do not forward” written near the last known address and “return service requested” written near the return address. Within a week, the postal service will provide you with the new address if indeed a change of address form were filled out.

Run the name in the paid databases a few different ways. Run it in the paid databases at least these ways: First and last name only and last-known city; first, last, and middle and last known city; first and last name and date-of-birth; then, run any names that show up as likely AKAs (this last step is particularly important for woman who have been married a few times and changed their last names).
Most difficult subjects will NOT show recent data if strictly run by the social security number. Yet, for reasons beyond my scope of understanding, the name searches tend to work better. In contrast, on an easier subject, the social security number tends to be the best identifier.
This method will prove problematic if the subject has a very common name and no other information is available – which hopefully will be a rare occurrence; however, if this is indeed the case, then efficiency would dictate starting with the next step of the process listed below.

If all you have is a name . . . here’s a free way to get the date-of-birth. At least with the name and date-of-birth, one now has some reasonable parameters to work with. Trying to find someone on name alone (particularly if a common one) – although an exceedingly rare assignment in this day and age – can be a Sisyphean task. So here is a free website that converts names and approximate ages to dob’s: birthdatabase.com. Now that you have these two items, you have a fighting chance of getting additional useful information from the databases.

Run the last-known address and carefully analyze findings. On a difficult subject, this is usually the most important starting point, for the following reasons: It will hopefully provide a slew of relatives/associates who were once living with the subject – these people are prime opportunities for follow-up; it may provide a number of variations of subject’s name; it may provide other key identifiers like social security number and date of birth.

Run any known close relatives. Paid databases these days are quite good at providing associative information, potentially highlighting your subject as being linked to one or more relatives whom you input into the database. At that point, just click on the name of your subject and then the remainder of his information should appear shortly. On difficult subjects for whom an address history is not known, this method works a reasonable percentage of the time.

Run the Shelby County arrest screen, which is called JSSI. The percentage of subjects who have been arrested is surprisingly high – perhaps not so surprising given that there is oftentimes much overlap between people who attorneys want to find and people who have been accused of crimes.

The JSSI system automatically updates the addresses to reflect the data given from the most recent arrest. Furthermore, even if the cases get dropped (which about 1/3 of them do), the arrest data stays in the system – unless the defendant hires an attorney to file the paperwork to get the data removed. Most people do not think to do this.

Obtain misdemeanor citation affidavits. Because of jail overcrowding, many Shelby County misdemeanor arrests (including most driving charges) do not result in the suspect being jailed; instead, he is issued a citation and is required to appear in court at a later date. The write-ups by law enforcement are richly detailed and easily accessible on the internet – with the caveat that your subject was actually arrested for a misdemeanor in our county.
These affidavits contain a wealth of useful information – including but not limited to current address, phone number, employment, make/model of vehicle, co-defendants, and alleged victims. Most arrestees will not overtly lie to the cops about this information. The main problem is that it gets stale quickly.

Obtain recent traffic tickets. When being cited for a traffic violation, people will oftentimes give their correct addresses to the officer even if it isn’t the same as the out-of-date one on their driver’s license. You may ask, well isn’t the correct address one and the same with the one on the drivers license? I’ll bet at least 20% of this audience has an incorrect address on the license. The figure is far higher for those who move around more. The average person moves every three years. So another investigative tactic involves doing an online search of the subject’s traffic tickets. Many counties (including ours, thankfully) make this available for free. If not, then a trip to the courthouse or DMV office will be in order.

In Tennessee, those with an authorized purpose can pay roughly seventy-five dollars ($75.00) to set up a yearly account with DMV plus about four dollars ($4.00) per search to get statewide traffic ticket information directly. Yet, strictly within Shelby county, this information is available for free on the local JSSI system on the internet (for tickets issued by the Sheriff) or by asking the clerk at the traffic division office located at the lower level of the general sessions criminal court (for tickets issues by MPD).

Obtain incident and accident reports. In Shelby county, these reports are available to any Tennessee resident for only a nominal per-page fee from the MPD central records office on the 10th floor of the criminal justice building. Provide the clerk with your subject’s name and date-of-birth. Ask for a blanket search for a five-year time frame or so and any incident/accident report over that period will be provided. Under a blanket search, the subject may show up as either a victim, witness, or a suspect. Either way, much useful information can be garnered such as address, phone number, employment, other people involved, and vehicles. If the subject was a victim or witness, then one can count on the information being provided as accurate at that time.
A big advantage of running the incident reports – and a main reason why the effort is almost always worth it – is that it captures the victim and witness information. For your subject to show up using some of these other search methods, he has to have actually committed a crime or traffic offense. Even Snow White has a chance to show up on the incident reports.

Call the last landlord. Well, that is, unless he is the client, in which case you have surely already mined him for information. Difficult subjects and poor landlord relationships often go hand-in-glove, so cooperation is relatively assured. No matter whether they are apartment complex leasing personnel or individual homeowners renting out their places, landlords tend to know a lot about their tenants. In the case of a homeowner, the landlord’s name can be easily found at either the county registrar’s or tax assessor’s website or office.

Do a thorough “neighborhood. This is a preferred tactic of FBI agents, apparently relying on the premise that neighbors really are nosy. I have found canvassing neighbors at the last-known address to be a reliable source of location information on a subject who has moved; however, this tactic should be reserved as a last-ditch measure because oftentimes it will result in the subject finding out that you are looking for him.

Two tricks to get the highest-quality information: Look for the house with the best manicured lawn(those people tend to be the nosiest); talk to kids about 10-12 years old (they are not old enough to be overly cynical, adult-haters yet still old enough to make reasonable observations).

Local store owners, delivery men, beat cops, postal carriers, kids playing, and pizza delivery people can also be queried as part of a thorough canvass.

Last but not least . . . mother ALWAYS knows!. Keep coming back to her if necessary.

***

A few words on optimizing the utility of the free portions of locate databases. For many law offices, a monthly subscription to a paid database service is not cost effective. For those who work under that constraint, free databases may be the only option. Unless the subject is a highly difficult one, you will get good results at least half the time using a free database coupled with some of the techniques outlined above.

Whitepages.com is the best free locate database, far-and-away. You don’t have to sign up for anything nor fool around with free trials. It provides address, landline phone numbers, and associates. If the subject is reasonably stable, it is highly likely that Whitepages.com will give you an accurate picture of his current residential situation. There are a number of hybrid database services: Intelius, Zoominfo, Radaris, Advanced Background Checks, InstateCheckMate, Peoplefinders Spokeo, Pipl, Mylife, Veromi, and US Search. I periodically try all of them. Companies in this genre seem to be in a constant state of flux, with new entrants coming in regularly and existing ones dissolving. One can never really be sure which ones will be in business at any given time and which will provide the best free information on a given subject at the time you need it. In short, results vary considerably and unpredictably.

Here’s a way to save time and possibly bypass the pay wall of these hybrid sites. In google, type in your subject’s full name and current city and last city (if known). If this person is an ordinary Joe type, then the foregoing hybrid pay/free sites will dominate the first page of the search results and possibly even the second. Try using both link options for each results: The current link and the cached link. Oftentimes the cached link provides more detailed results. You just never know really what quirks in the search process will allow you to see the better information.
If you get any luck on the one of these sites and circumvent the paywall, then you could very well end up with last-known address, last-known phone number, last-known employment, and associations. That is, last known as far is this database is concerned – which may not be the most recent . . .

. . . So keep in mind that the best locate information will almost always come from the paid sites that vet their users for proper qualifications.

Deep backgrounding of subjects

A high-quality background investigation can be viewed as a mosaic. Some of the individual pieces may be quite alluring in themselves, but the overall composition from the synergy of the pieces is the true art that is being created. A few examples from my experience:

  • A plaintiff I backgrounded in a med-mal case had two out-of-state assault convictions – one was against her own mother. I discovered from an ex-boyfriend that her mother had Multiple Sclerosis at the time, which was not noted on the police report. The fusion of these two pieces of information created a much more powerful picture for a jury to ponder about this woman’s character.
  • A plaintiff in a wrongful death case had filed a Petition to Establish Paternity and to Change Name on behalf of her daughter in 2008 in Mississippi. The presumed father had already terminated his parental rights. A DNA test determined that the current husband is the father. A number of out-of-state documents yielded the findings that the daughter was born in 1992 yet the divorce petition was not filed until 1995. So it is virtually certain that the plaintiff cheated on her husband and did not tell him about true paternity until many years later. This conclusion was not stated in any individual document. It was arrived at through creating an informational mosaic.
  • I discovered that there was a high probability that an expert witness M.D. had committed disability fraud. He collected full disability in 2007 and reported no other income on a bankruptcy filing. Yet under oath as an expert witness in another case he claimed to have a full patient load in 2007. In fact, business was reportedly so good in 2007 that he moved to a cash-only payment scheme which is quite suspect in itself. Once again, it is the art of combining information from data sources into a new, more devastating conclusion that separates the top background investigations from the merely good ones.
  • A drive-by of a plaintiff’s residence in a med-mal case showed that the home was in a shocking state of disrepair and the front yard stunk – the whole property was almost third-world-like. So I casually chatted up a neighbor. I was then told that as many as fifty cats were in that house and/or roaming around at one time. The next door neighbor even erected a fence in a vain effort to keep them away from his property. This neighbor also called Animal Control on the family. 4-5 units supposedly rolled up and spent hours capturing these felines. There were reports of dead kittens found in the house, in addition to feces and garbage. I confirmed this with hard copies of the reports from animal control. The uncleanliness of the home and lifestyle of the occupants did have an important bearing on this case. It was the mosaic that ultimately led me to get the animal control reports.

A criminal background investigation usually starts with the locate.Because there is no such thing as a national criminal database available to the private sector, an address history is vital just to get the criminal history part done accurately. The true picture can only be obtained by going to each county and/or city in which your subject has lived and thoroughly checking the criminal history through some combination of incident reports, arrests reports, and court records. In many smaller cities and counties, the only way to do this is by telephone.

Use the locate information for the other local pieces of the investigation. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to take the trouble to perform the following steps in every city/county that you can identify as a former residence of your subject (all of the following are open records, at least in Memphis and Shelby County):

  • Civil court records at both the small claims and circuit court levels
  • Probate court records
  • All property deed and tax records from the assessor, registrar, and/or recorder
  • Subsidized housing records from the Housing Authority
  • Business licensing records from the city or county clerk
  • Construction/zoning-type records from code enforcement
  • Vehicle history records from the clerk and/or DMV
  • Traffic tickets from the clerk and/or DMV
  • Incident and 911 reports
  • Fire reports
  • Health department inspection reports
  • Marriage records

Incident reports, incident reports, incident reports!!! Request them from every city in which your subject has lived. They will give you the most complete picture of potential and actual criminal activity of all the law enforcement reports available – because the more commonly obtained arrest reports flow from the initial incident reports. And because even incidents that do not turn into arrests are still obtainable on the incident reports. A pattern of activity that results in multiple dealings with law enforcement – arrests or no arrests – is worthy of investigative follow-up.
Incident reports are particularly golden because they pick up the person as a suspect, victim, or witness – and they are oftentimes quite detailed as well. From witness status, you can oftentimes glean information about their associations and their being in the midst of nefarious activity. From victim status, you can oftentimes learn a lot about their mindset (regular calls for domestics that don’t result in arrests, regular calls on their children, regular calls for harassment, regular calls for burglaries with no signs of forced entry and valuable items taken). For best results, have them run two ways: by the person’s name. . . and by the address.
These reports are almost never available on the internet. Although most states do not exempt them from Open Records acts, it can be like pulling teeth sometimes to obtain them from the law enforcement records people. Be persistent. Be firm. Be nice. Act like you expect to receive them, not like the bureaucrats are doing you some kind of massive favor. By law, they have to provide them to you in most cases. If they continue to resist, send them a formal request letter containing detailed language from their State’s Open Records laws.

Do everything possible to obtain the resume. A hard copy of the actual resume is best, yet a Linkedin long version or beyond.com version or something from the myriad job sites out there would suffice. Ask your attorney if a resume request can be included in interrogatories and/or deposition materials and/or other discovery requests. Ask your attorney to subpoena, if necessary.
Try and get multiple copies over a number of years (granted, that is fairly easy to do for an expert witness but a challenge for most others). That way you can closely analyze the changes over time. Look for items once contained that are now omitted. Look for changes in job titles, however subtle. Comb each resume line-by-line. Verify each and every claim.
It has been my experience that even the most erudite and esteemed expert witnesses produce some type of puffery, major omission, or outright untruth on their resumes. Interestingly, these can oftentimes be found in the non-professional or other section. Here are some examples fused from expert witnesses I have backgrounded:

  • Claimed to be a PADI Master Scuba Instructor yet was not even listed as a certified scuba diver
  • Claimed to be a Rotary Club member but was not
  • Claimed to be an Honorary City Council member yet there was no record of it
  • Claimed to be an official surgeon to a well-known organization yet there was no record of it
  • Deleted stint as COO of now-bankrupt venture into the blood storage realm
  • Failed to list full extent of consultancies, research grants, and other associations
  • Listed numerous hospitals where the doctor no longer had privileges

Comb through the entire bankruptcy and/or divorce jackets. Theseare the mother all all background sources in the non-criminal realm. Since 2006, PACER has put the entire jacket online, making our job much easier. I have yet to see a court put the entire divorce jacket online, although some jurisdictions provide much better highlights than others. So reading the jacket entails a trip to the courthouse and substantial notetaking or copying. Trust me – the trip is almost always well worth it. Here are some examples of items unearthed:

  • From the divorce file of an expert witness- Buried within this one-foot thick jacket was a psychologist’s report stating that this expert has received extensive psychiatric and psychological treatment for anxiety, panic, depression, and pain. His short-term memory was noted as poor and he could not express himself linearly. According to this report, the expert closed his outpatient practice to just focus on forensic work. The file goes on to state that he ultimately closed his practice completely because of despondency and depression. As of the next year, he claimed to be unemployed with no medical practice to speak of and disability checks as his sole source of income. One final noteworthy item was that the expert managed to cause three auto wrecks within a short period of time.
  • From the bankruptcy filing of a defendant-The filing highlighted massive overspending on the part of the couple. The husband was already paying $5,200/month in alimony and child support from his first marriage, yet still accumulated the following (under significant debt): Two expensive residences; two farms; a Florida condo; five vehicles. The farm required a manager and the kids had a nanny. The kids also attended private schools.

Tips on searching with google There is no substitute for tenaciousness, multiple keyword combinations, and ingenious keyword development and use.

  • Always put the name in quotes and do every search twice: Once with first and last name and once with first, last and middle initial.
  • Search by name (two ways, see above!) combined with last known city. Then do the same for every city you suspect the subject may have lived. You can even do combinations of cities.
  • Search by name combined with each specific address you have unearthed
  • Search strictly by the specific addresses
  • Search strictly by any phone number or email address you have unearthed
  • Search by name combined with each employer you are aware of
  • If you know the university the person attended (often in the deposition transcript), by all means search by name and university combination.
  • Go well beyond the first few pages of results.

Example: I was tasked with getting current information on someone when all I had was his name (which was a common one), the fact that he had spent some time in Memphis around 15-20 years ago, and a 15-20 year-old email address. I ran the email address on Google, which led to his reference (in an obscure user group) to an undergraduate paper he wrote at Cornell on the food service industry. So I then ran his name combined with Cornell and food service. That produced a Linkedin account of an Ole Miss Adjunct Food Service Professor who attended Cornell University. Then running his name and his current employer got me even more information.

How to search Facebook more cleverly. The key to getting information from Facebook accounts often lies in learning about the person’s associations. If your subject lists her friends on her public profile, then the task is made infinitely easier. Even in this case, though, winnowing is a must because of the hundreds or even thousands of friends normally contained in a facebook profile, only a few are really close and merit further scrutiny. Determine who these people are by seeing who is liking posts or pictures or commenting on them regularly on the wall. Then follow up on these leads only.

Pay particular note of who your subject is NOT friends with. This is a great way to find sources, particularly those of the Judas variety (the best kind!). If you see certain close family members showing up as friends of other family members – but not of your subject – there is a strong probability of a busted relationship situation. Animosity and vendettas invariably translate into the feuding party being a talkative and useful source.

A basic trick is to use the advanced filters provided by Facebook. You can search by various categories or combinations of categories: name, employer, city etc. Just make sure to select “not my friends” under the friendship category; otherwise, you will be severely limiting your findings. If your subject has a common name, these filters will be essential to finding him.
What if the wall, personal information, and friends’ identities are all private? . . . This can be overcome by ethical means . . . an advanced trick is to CHECK THE PHOTOS themselves for likes and comments. Then go to these individuals pages and find one that is indeed public. You will now see any comments from your subject that were exchanged with this person.

Next, DO A SEARCH ON THE PULLDOWN MENU at the top. Items of particular note are “photos liked by” and “pages liked by.” Similar to the above situation, then go to these individuals pages and find one that is public.

What if the wall, personal information, friends, AND photos are all private? . . . It happens, but not often. Usually, users with this profile just don’t use facebook much or stopped using it. Yet there are some uncommon situations where this type of facebook page is masking significant activity with just a select group of friends. I only know of one way to try and overcome this last situation: Use Google to search facebook under your subject’s name. The Google search engine uses different algorithms than facebook’s – and facebook’s is notoriously bad anyway – so there will be a small chance that Google will catch something. If the name you are searching is very common, then search using the name and any other key identifier known: e.g. the last-known city and/or employment and/or university.

What if their Facebook account is under an alias? . . . This scenario is fairly common among younger people who might go by street names rather than formal names. If you don’t know the street name, then there is only one way I know of surmounting this problem – and it is highly labor-intensive. You must know what they look like and must know some of their friends or relatives. Slog through any public profiles of these people and look for the picture of your subject in their friend’s section.

Tips on finding employment information and finding ex-employees. Although there are services that claim to be able to find employment histories for anywhere from $75-150, I question the accuracy of this information. I also question how they find it, because if a law firm hires them and they use pretext (an ethical breach) and/or credit reports (a crime), then those acts will accrue to the attorney as well.

I use the mosaic theory to get the employment history:

o hybrid free/paid databases

o Linkedin, yet must have an account to do substantive searches

o Facebook graph advanced search

o Wayback Machine

o muscling through on Google

o interrogatories from other lawsuits

o traffic tickets and misdemeanor affidavits

o prior landlords