The Most Useful Open Records in Shelby County: A definitive guide to availability, location, and procedure

HIGHLIGHTS AND OVERVIEW

Investigators, paralegals, and attorneys all make substantial use of public records. Investigative research in this area often proves pivotal in deep backgrounding (parties, fact witnesses and expert witnesses), locating difficult/evasive people, developing impeachment material, locating and valuing assets, collecting judgments . . . and verifying all manner of claims. They can easily turn a case. And the cost is next-to-nothing.

Encouragingly, our city and county’s open records policies, compliance, and availability are among the best I have found in my investigative career. Our material may not be online to the same extent as other jurisdictions, but it can still be readily unearthed and the front line government employees are by-and-large helpful. As are both the city and county legal departments.

Tennessee open records laws – particularly the exemptions – are scattered among hundreds of statutes and court rules: Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-101; § 10-7-503, and § 10-7-504 contains the most relevant material. The exemptions are substantial – yet can largely be distilled to the areas of medical information, law enforcement investigations, and confidential information on public employees.

Policies vary greatly among agencies – from simply making an informal oral request at the counter to submitting a request directly to the city or county attorney. Other procedures include making the request to the agency’s own attorney, making a request to an agency’s dedicated online open records page, using an agency’s supplied form either online or in person, submitting a request to the agency on your letterhead in person, submitting a request to the agency on your letterhead via email/fax, or using the city’s open records portal.

The agency has seven business days to fulfill the request or state in writing why it was denied. The denial must contain the underlying legal reason, which will invariably be one of the exemptions. If there is a problem, my experience is that the city or county attorneys will be more-than-happy to quickly straighten it out with an eye towards being helpful to you.

With the exception of law enforcement personnel records, one does not have to provide a reason for the request; however, the agency employee oftentimes still asks for one. Rather than refusing to disclose and creating a barrier, I found that that best, most diplomatic response is to state that my request pertains to an active litigation matter. In rare instances, the agency will want more specifics. If I really need the record, I comply.

The City of Memphis, in particular, is making an effort to centralize all public records requests on its online system, an effort which is to be applauded. If the exact record required can be obtained that way, so much the better. Simple and easy. Yet going to the agency directly can pay big dividends in terms of availability in general and level of detail specifically. Nothing beats a good relationship with a records clerk.

A general rule in effective public records acquisition is that the most helpful and detailed information will be found in the application that underlies the record. That is undoubtedly the case with voters’ registration, marriage, divorce, and business license data – for which only skeletal information is provided online or on a standard records request. So be sure to ask for the underlying information whenever possible.

AVAILABILITY/LOCATION/PROCEDURE BY CATEGORY

LAW ENFORCEMENT/CORRECTIONS REPORTS

Arrests and convictions. The Shelby County online screen is referred to as the JSSI system and is as comprehensive as any I have encountered. And it is invariably useful, given that the percentage of subjects holding investigative interest who have been arrested is high – perhaps not so surprising given that there is oftentimes much overlap between people who attorneys want to find and/or background 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 and from the bonding company. Furthermore, even if the cases get dropped (which about 1/3 of them do), the arrest data stays in the system – unless the defendant files the paperwork to remove it. Most people do not think to do this, although they should.

Other useful information contained in the JSSI system includes but is not limited to case disposition, jail time and probation, the case attorney, the amount of the bond, future court dates, past court appearances, and costs and fines. The reader can readily see if the defendant had a habit of missing court dates and if he ever became a fugitive as a result. The fine amount outstanding is readily available as well. One can assume that if fines/costs remain outstanding for at least a year, then the subject’s driver’s license will be suspended.

Vehicle registrations. This information can also come indirectly from many misdemeanor citations (see below) and probable cause affidavits for all crimes charged. As long as you have a permissible purpose (which lawyers and investigators invariably do), you can go to the Shelby County Clerk’s office for Motor Vehicles and Marriage Licenses at 201 Washington and have them run a plate for you, run a name for vehicles registered, or run an address for vehicles registered. On the request form, this box usually gets checked: “Use in conjunction with a civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceeding in any court or government agency or before any self-regulatory body, including service of process, investigation in anticipation of litigation, execution or enforcement of a judgment or order, under an order of any court.” Vehicle information is invariably useful for a wide range of legal needs: To obtain a current address (all), to ID someone who may have left the scene (car accident attorneys), to determine exactly who comes over to the other parent’s home while the child is there (family law attorneys), and to determine judgment lien potential (collection attorneys).

Probable cause affidavit, particularly for misdemeanor citations. 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. These citations and the accompanying affidavits contain a wealth of useful information – including but not limited to a narrative of the alleged crime, current address, phone number, employment, make/model of vehicle, co-defendants, and alleged victims. Most arrestees will not overtly lie to the cops about the identifying information such as address and phone number. The main problem is that it gets stale quickly.

Traffic tickets. Shelby County Sheriff-written tickets show up as part of the JSSI system highlighted above. MPD-written tickets can be obtained for free in the lower level of 201 Poplar. This information is more valuable than what can be assessed by a paid account with the state of Tennessee ($75/year and $7/search), because it contains even non-processed tickets. The majority of violations in our county are dismissed at cost, so this method is the only way to capture them. The location where occurred, vehicle driven, and home address can all prove valuable. As can the amounts still owed on the tickets and how long they have been outstanding.

AVAILABILITY/LOCATION/PROCEDURE BY CATEGORY

LAW ENFORCEMENT/CORRECTIONS REPORTS (Cont.)

Traffic tickets (cont.) 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. In my experience, 20% of drivers have an incorrect address on the license. The figure is far higher for those who move around more. The average person moves every three years.

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. For best results, have them run two ways: by the person’s name . . . and by the address.

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 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.

911 audio and reports. The audio and transcript of 911 calls is also provided by MPD’s central records office on the 10th floor of the criminal justice building. One can request the audio or transcripts by address, name, or even by phone number. The date must also be provided. A blanket request over a few year period can be made; however, accuracy will not be guaranteed. Audio is retained for eighteen months while transcripts are kept for a few years. The request can also be made via the City of Memphis’s public records request portal.

MPD pole camera video. This incredibly useful information source is indeed a public record in Memphis, obtained simply by making a request through the city’s open records portal. The potential uses of this material in both civil and criminal litigation are manifold: Establishing fault in auto accidents, finding witnesses, viewing crime scenes, and verifying alibis.

AVAILABILITY/LOCATION/PROCEDURE BY CATEGORY

LAW ENFORCEMENT/CORRECTIONS REPORTS (Cont.)

Pretrial services reports. Given that this agency makes bail recommendations to the Judicial Commissioners of the General Sessions Court, their reports will undoubtedly contain a real-time NCIC run directly from the FBI with the inmates entire life’s worth of arrests and convictions. A private investigator can never legally access NCIC. Instead, a criminal background has to be obtained by slogging through open records from every jurisdiction the subject has lived. Even with the most diligent of investigators, something can be missed using this mosaic method. So legal access to a recent NCIC report is absolute nirvana for obtaining an accurate criminal history. Other potentially useful information in the pretrial reports includes the arrestee’s references, address history, employment history, and family members.

Probation reports. Unlike parole reports, these are not exempted by statute, although it is my experience that you may have to fight hard for them. The records might be available with the individual officer, at pretrial services, at the Probation and Parole Board office in Memphis, or in Nashville. If in Nashville, a research and copy fee will have to be paid that can total in the hundreds of dollars.

These reports center on the probationer’s current activities, whereabouts, and adherence to sentencing conditions. They can range from skeletal to extremely detailed. Medical information and chronological reports from the officer are usually redacted but the viewer should still be able to glean detailed information on many facets of the probationer.

Jail reports. If an inmate or former inmate is the subject of a deep background analysis or he is particularly difficult to locate sometime later, then jail information could prove pivotal. Examples of what is available include phone calls, property records, and visitors. Anyone associated with the inmate in these capacities will invariably have detailed knowledge of his whereabouts and would be worth finding and talking to. In custody matters in particular, evidence that the opposing party associates with accused criminals can be a salient negotiating point. In criminal defense cases, these associations can oftentimes provide fertile cross examination material. Requests can be made over the phone, by email, or by mail. For best results, use your letterhead and state that it involves an active legal matter in the body of the request.

Personnel files of law enforcement officers. The procedure with the county is to call Human Resources and request a viewing time. They must then contact the officer, give your name to the officer, and then wait three days before allowing viewing of the file. A Human Resources official will watch you view the file. Notetaking is allowed. The request with the city is made through the open records portal. The same procedure is followed with an official watching you view the file. These files are rich in useful material, including but not limited to the officer’s CV pre-hire, performance reviews, educational background, special training, and promotion history.

AVAILABILITY/LOCATION/PROCEDURE BY CATEGORY

OTHER REPORTS

Subsidized housing tenant information. Although I could not find any statutory open records exemption, it is nonetheless the legal policy of MHA to not release specific information about those receiving housing subsidies – other than by subpoena. Accordingly, this policy may not hold up to a challenge in Chancery Court. The information available could prove quite useful: Examples include all members of the household, income of each member, the source of income of each member, employment histories, and past housing histories.

Subsidized housing landlord information. Under the umbrella of MHA’s overall approval paperwork process, landlords are required to set up a direct deposit system with MHA. Although I am convinced that the specific banking information should be an open record, I am also convinced that MHA probably won’t release it as such without a Chancery Court action. As with the above, a subpoena would do the trick, though. This finding could be quite useful in collection efforts because it has been my experience that many judgment debtors happen to be landlords for properties that fall under MHA jurisdiction.

Business licenses. This information is not directly available online. The seasoned, helpful, and friendly clerks at the Shelby County Business Tax Division on the second floor of 150 Washington will default to dragging out massive books that organize the information by both owner name and business name. The business address will be given next to the name, which is skeletal but still useful information. For more data, you will have to be extra nice to the clerk who at her discretion will look up the application information in the computer. This may include but not be limited to business mailing address (if different from physical), contact person’s name, contact person’s email, business activity conducted, and business partners. A virtual treasure trove of useful items.

Birth records. A copy of the birth certificate can be made available by the personnel at the Shelby County Department Department of Health at 814 Jefferson Avenue. Their procedure is for the requester to submit the request on company letterhead and to show picture identification. There will have to be a documented legal matter associated with the request.

Marriage records. The best place to start this search is the Shelby County Register of Deed’s site. On the first page there will be a marriage records index up to the year 2014 that can be searched by either groom or bride name. The returned information will include the other party to marriage, the date of marriage, and the county of marriage. This information will serve as a springboard for garnering the even more useful data detailed below.

The clerks right down the hall from the Vehicle Registration Division at 150 Washington will sell you a certified copy of a marriage license for $10.00, as can the personnel at the Mullins Station location. The license itself contains only the following skeletal information: Names of parties and date of ceremony. However, the clerks at their discretion can verify items from the application, which they can access in their computer even though it is a Nashville-based record (see below). The process works by your giving them information believed to be accurate and they will say yes or no.

AVAILABILITY/LOCATION/PROCEDURE BY CATEGORY

OTHER REPORTS (CONT.)

Marriage records (cont).The real nuggets to be found are embedded in the license application and marriage certificate, which are maintained by The Department of Health’s Vital Records Division in Nashville – and can be ordered online once you know the date and place of marriage. Here is a sampling of the wealth of potentially useful items: Which marriage it is, when the other marriages ended, maiden name, full names, educational histories, birthplaces, dates of birth, original names of parents, and birthplaces of parents. This bountiful yet often underutilized tool can prove highly useful in a variety of cases – finding heirs, locates, backgrounding, and property ownership.

Divorce records. Just like marriage records, the best place to start this search is the Shelby County Register of Deed’s site. Right above the marriage records index will be the divorce records index. Just enter either the husband’s or wife’s name. The returned information will include the other party, the wife’s maiden name, the date of divorce, the county of divorce, and the specific court that granted it.

Also similar to marriage records, the real nuggets will be found in the divorce certificate, which is maintained by The Department of Health’s Vital Records Division in Nashville – and can be ordered once you know the year of divorce and the husband’s and wife’s names. Here is a sampling of this wealth of information (for both husband and wife): Dates of birth, residences, and birthplaces; place of marriage, date of marriage, date couple last resided in same household, number of children, number of children under 18, custody awards, petitioner, petitioner’s attorney. Like marriage records, this bountiful yet often underutilized tool can prove highly useful in a variety of cases – finding heirs, locates, backgrounding, and property ownership.

For particularly deep backgrounding, pulling the actual divorce jacket is almost always a worthwhile endeavor. If the case is recent, then you can obtain it online from either Chancery or Circuit Court using your account. Older cases can be obtained in hard copy form in the basement of the courthouse.

Death records. The wonderful site of our County Register is once again the best place to start as long as the subject died anywhere in Tennessee. The site will return the following information: Date of death, age of decedent, county of death, county of residence, marital status, and race.

Similar to divorce and marriage records, the nuggets will be found in the death certificate, which is maintained by The Department of Health’s Vital Records Division in Nashville – and can be ordered once you know the date of death, place of death, and decedent’s parents. Here is a sampling of what is available: birthplace, occupation, marital status, residence, parent’s names, armed forces service, name of physician.

If you need it faster, the death certificate is also available at the Shelby County Department Department of Health at 814 Jefferson Avenue. Their procedure is for the requester to submit the request on company letterhead and to show picture identification. There will have to be a documented legal matter associated with the request.

To get the obituary (a great way to find family members), a search can be run on Legacy.com or Obituary.com. A straight up Google search may also work by using the person’s name, city, a family member or two, and the words “obituary” or “death.”

AVAILABILITY/LOCATION/PROCEDURE BY CATEGORY

OTHER REPORTS (CONT.)

Voter’s registration. The researcher can check online at the Shelby County Election Commission’s site to see if a voter’s registration is active, as long as he knows the subject’s birth year and listed address. The more bountiful application information (excluding social security number) can be obtained by emailing, faxing, or hand delivering a request to a staff member of the county election commission. These nuggets include additional addresses, prior address, email, phone, and voting history.

County code enforcement activity. County enforcement is responsible for monitoring multi-unit dwellings and businesses (city code enforcement monitors single family homes) and for issuing building permits for all.

Although permit information by address is available online, truly unlocking the power of their records is only accomplished in person, and I have found the people at the Mullins Station headquarters to be exceedingly helpful. They will perform searches on items such as permits granted to individual contractors, code enforcement activity by address or name, and inspection reports.

This information can be particularly useful for judgment collection on contractors, who are highly judgment prone yet not directly garnishable because of their largely self-employed status. Yet income owed to them by their clients is more definitely fair game in a collection action, so knowing about their current jobs can prove invaluable

.

City code enforcement activity. Reports of visits to properties, warnings issued, citations issued, and court action can be most valuable in ascertaining – among other things – constructive knowledge and existing condition information. A fairly extensive history of enforcement activity (including officer notes) is available online – but only by address.

City fire department investigations. The personnel at the investigation division’s 2201 Lamar Avenue’s office are invariably helpful and efficient. They will make the full report and photos available for a nominal fee. These reports are quite detailed, oftentimes running over ten pages.

County health department inspections. This program is extensive and includes the inspection of swimming pools, hotels / motels, tattoo and body piercing establishments, coin-operated laundries, barbershops, institutions, personal care homes, organized camps, funeral homes. Records that can be gathered include complaint investigations, plan reviews, permit approvals, permit fee collections, suspensions, citations, and environmental court activity. The open records request must be made directly to the health department attorney.

It has been my experience that permitting and inspection-type records are invariably useful in personal injury cases.

An often overlooked use is in collection matters generally and fraudulent conveyance matters specifically. The true owner can often be found by seeing who these reports mention as a contact person and who is applying for the permits in the first place.

AVAILABILITY/LOCATION/PROCEDURE BY CATEGORY

OTHER REPORTS (CONT.)

Property ownership, financing, tax payments, corporate, and miscellaneous county. The County Assessor’s site is the best place to start. Information can be accessed by either address or owner. The site then leads you to the property record page, which contains owners’ name, their addresses (if different), assessments, and detailed property information. Links from that page lead to the complete sales history of the property and the building permitting history.

The County Register of Deeds site, surprisingly, contains a staggering amount of highly useful material – most of which is not even real estate-related. These records can be accessed by name, business name, instrument number, or address.

Here is a small sampling of what is offered (in addition to the marriage, divorce, and death records mentioned above): lobbying expenditures, warranty deeds, trust deeds, mortgages, charters, training certificates, contracts, tax liens, tax releases, powers of attorney, and UCC’s.

The Shelby County Trustee handles property tax payments. Its site – which can be accessed by name, property address, or parcel ID – will highlight historical property tax payments and will show deficiencies.

The Trustee also handles assessment and collection of personalty taxes, which are levied on temporary or moveable property such as furnishings, office machines, computers, telephones, vehicles, and other such items that are used by a company or a person to operate a business. Many businesses either don’t know about or consciously forgo paying what can be considered nuisance-type taxes of this ilk. That can make for potentially useful impeachment material.

City of Memphis tax payments. Their ePayments site is remarkably helpful to the investigative researcher seeking to find not only unpaid property taxes, but also unpaid traffic and parking tickets as well. For the latter two, all one needs is the individual’s name, date of birth, and/or license plate number.