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Rooting around in public records
April 2003

Meredith Poor started programming in high school on 8K Datapoint 2200s around 1971. Most of his work now is focused on business applications software, typically using SQL-Server, MS Office, and IIS.

A long long time ago when I was sitting around the campfire with my hippie friends (or whatever they were in the Apple II days when we were all changing the world) we discussed putting government records on-line, so “the rest of us” could get some kind of grasp of what “they” were doing to us.  Piece by piece this has become a reality.  This hit me in the face a few days ago for a totally unexpected reason; a situation where, briefly, I was thinking I might have to move in a hurry.

Anyone who is much into robots (as I am) has, from time to time, haunted government surplus depots, or in some cases, DRMO, which the agency for disposing of DOD surplus.  DRMO, or more generally, GSA, has a Website, which I haven’t looked at in years, but what I remember about it was that what was listed there was the junkiest of the junk.  The Website evidently listed what hadn’t been bought at local auction: totaled Security Police cars, busted up furniture, 5 gallon bottled water jars, and Ground Support Equipment that was so rusted you couldn’t roll it over a cliff.  What I really could have used was one of those F16 jet engines, which I needed for my rebuilt Isuzu.

One of the more recent and more useful databases has been the BCAD (Bexar County Appraisal District).  This one has been around for two or three years, and has in the last year had GIS (Geographical Information System) so that you can home in on your family plot, and find out who actually owns the neighborhood eyesores.  You can also find out if they’ve paid their property taxes, which requires a bit of finagling, but not much.

For some reason I was looking up small towns along the flood path last year, and discovered that all, or at least all the “major” counties in Texas have their property records online.  I’m guessing there is a state law mandating this, since there seems to be a fair amount of commonality in these systems, although they clearly have different developers.  The Website URLs are all over the map, there are .coms, and .orgs and .govs and even .nets.

So why was I rooting around in public records Websites? Quoting Edmund Hillary: “Because it’s there”.

At one point I was looking up the mailing addresses of our honorable County Commissioners, as well as City Councilpersons and certain officers on the boards of SAWS and CPS.  One of my Dumpster dives had yielded gift certificates for Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, and these had to be distributed to appropriate parties.  At any rate, I discovered a trove of boards you never heard of, the Child Advocacy Board and the Southtown Redevelopment Board and so many other boards I could build a dance hall.  The number of people serving on these exceeds a thousand, although not by much.

In my supposed rush out the door, I was interested in foreclosures, since this might yield some sort of real estate bargain.  This lead me eventually to the County Clerk’s Website, which lists more stuff than you can stand: State Tax Liens, Marriage Licenses, Abandonments, Satisfactions, Assumed Names, etc.  I have no idea what all this stuff is, but there is a lot of records in some of them.  A lot.

The County Clerk’s Office has a link to the Texas Department of Transportation.  If they have all this stuff that’s nobody’s business in the county, it’s probably true for the state.  Not even.

In attempting to look up my own license plate number, I find that there are laws about this stuff.  In short, don’t even think it.  You will not be looking up car plates on a State of Texas Website.  It might be out there somewhere, but not in TXDOT.

In our college American Literature course, Henry Thoreau posits in his essays that many of his neighbors live lives of quiet desperation.  Now I have the proof.  There is nothing like visiting the country courthouse, either literally or virtually, to wallow in pathos.

Did I find any bargains?  Doubtful.  Problem is, it might be staring me in the face without me knowing what I’m looking at.  The more general impression I’m left, as I’m sifting through some of this stuff, is a bunch of overworked small business owners that let various things fall through the cracks.  Things like their monthly sales tax deposits, franchise taxes, etc.

We can’t leave out the City of San Antonio, whose impounded vehicle auction is a weekly affair.  Does anyone get a Mercedes for $1?  Possible, but only if it’s wrecked and burned.

Many of the scanned records are simply snapshots of hand-written records, and a few of them contain stuff that should obviously not be publicly visible.  One of them had a hand-written Texas Drivers License number next to the signature.  This should have been taped over or otherwise obscured before the document was scanned.  This suggests that if I looked long enough and in the right places, I might find social security numbers.

One would hope the people recording all this stuff have a sense of due diligence, but this expectation is unrealistic.  A better idea might be for each of us to check our records, and see if anything untoward is in our subset of the corporeal entirety. There might actually be a good reason for you to look yourself up.

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