Law Offices of Heist, Weisse, and Wolk, P.A.
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If you are currently just obtaining a credit report and performing a criminal background check on your applicants, you may be doing yourself and the owner for whom you manage a serious disservice. You really should consider using a screening company who will perform a comprehensive credit and criminal background check and assist you in the decision making process. Whether you use a screening company or obtain credit and criminal reports on your own, it is important to recognize some of the shortcomings of the information that you are receiving and see how the use of the public records can supplement the information you are currently receiving.

What are the “Public Records?”

The public records include the civil, criminal and property ownership information which is gathered and recorded by the Clerk of the Court and the Property Appraiser in a given county, plus those records that the State of Florida maintains, such as the FDLE information on sexual offenders and predators. In addition to civil and criminal court records for a particular county, the public records also include information on ownership of property which is gathered by the tax appraiser’s office and contains a wealth of information. The public records may include information on your applicant and information on the current or prior manager of your applicant, if that individual or company is located in the county in which you are searching. The information you gather from the respective websites maintained by the county may be more current and comprehensive than the information you received from your screening company.

Developing a Written Company Policy

If you feel uncomfortable about a particular applicant, you may be tempted to get on the computer and begin digging into the public records. You may uncover civil or criminal information that you did not get from your screening company, and based on this information, you may decide not to approve the applicant. Sounds good, right? Well, the problem is that unless you check the public records of every applicant in a given similar situation, you may run afoul of fair housing laws, as you may not be treating all the applicants equally. You need to create a written plan and a policy which will determine under what circumstances you will check the public records and how far you will go with this. As part of this decision and plan, you will need to determine what counties you will check, and understand that in some counties, the information is not readily available and would require written requests or payment for information. You don’t need to get permission to check the public records of an applicant, because the information is indeed public, but if you find something that appears to be a problem, you need to safely use this information without getting yourself in trouble. What county will you check? The applicant may be from one county, the former or current manager from another, and your property is in another. Are you going to check the public records of three different counties? We recommend that you start with one county, that being the one where the property is located.

Eviction Records

While most screening companies have an “eviction database”, these evictions are usually ones that were filed and disposed of by the court months ago. Most screening companies buy eviction information from each county and then put it into their computer systems. Very few companies actually search the eviction records for your county when they are screening the applicant, and they certainly rarely do this for the entire state, as they literally would have to access 67 different computer systems, and the information that they obtain will only be a similar or the same name. Remember, the public record does not contain Social Security numbers, so if a name comes up, there is usually no way to tell if that person you are reading about is the applicant you are screening. Imagine searching a name like John Smith. Thousands will come up in the database. Is this information useless? We don’t think so. We feel that it is worthwhile to search your applicants in the civil court records database of your county. The person who is applying can be under eviction at that very moment, and the screening company most likely will not catch this when you might. This type of applicant is the most dangerous of them all, as they are slipping through the cracks and getting approved before anything shows up on their credit reports or public records information that your screening company has in its system. If you make it a habit to look up an applicant’s name in the civil court records, you may indeed find out that the person is currently under eviction or has been evicted before. The court records will show the co-resident if there is one, and this helps to narrow it down to see if the person applying is the same person in the court records, and the eviction that pops up will show both names. With uncommon names, your job becomes easier. Let’s presume you find the name appearing in the court records. Could it be the same person? Possibly, and this gives you the opportunity to ask the applicant about why his name or someone with the same name appears as a current or past eviction, and this gives him a chance to explain or prove to you that it is someone else and not him. Think about this. On any given Wednesday, we may file 100 evictions. Where do you think some of these people are on Saturday? You are showing them a house or an apartment and have no clue. These people end up getting approved and slip right through. People with bad credit do not always make bad residents, but people who have been evicted or are currently under eviction have a high chance of being evicted again. Do you want to be the next victim? The minute an eviction is filed, it will show up in the computer of the clerk of court.

Criminal Records

The criminal and arrest records you obtain from the computer of your county court system will most likely be more up to date than the information of your screening company. In Florida, there often is a delay in the county relaying information to the Department of Corrections or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, so when you look up a person’s name, you are getting fresh, up to date information. The problem again will be similar names, which makes it difficult to verify that it is the same person. Many sheriffs’ departments have photos posted online in the arrest reports, so you may be able to look these up to verify that the person who was arrested is the person who is applying. Can you reject an applicant just because of an arrest? Possibly not, as many people are arrested and released with no charges filed, but it gives you a better picture of the applicant if you can look at the criminal information on your computer and ask the applicant further questions. That applicant who was arrested last month for major drug trafficking may be out on bail; your screening company does not have it in its system, but you now have the info. You certainly can deny the applicant if you find that he lied on his application, but without checking the public records, you may never have found out, or you will find out when it is too late. One of the biggest problems you will have to deal with is having a registered sexual offender or predator slip through and accidentally get approved. To help avoid this dilemma, a simple website is available, free and easy to use. Please use it.

Injunctions and Domestic Violence Issues

A check of the public records of the county court may reveal restraining orders and injunctions. These are court orders which prevent a person from contacting or being within a particular number of feet from another person. This is an interesting scenario. It appears that one of your applicants has an injunction against the other, and he is not even allowed to be within 500 feet of the other. How can they be both sitting in your office applying to rent your apartment? Is it possible they have been asked to leave by their current manager due to constant fighting and destruction of the property, and that they just recently reconciled? If one of them is violating the injunction, that person may actually be in the process of committing a crime right there in the office. While we would never want to deny someone solely because they were a victim of domestic violence, we certainly can look into the situation that we have discovered here and ask some probing questions. Without looking in the public records yourself, there is a high chance that this would be missed by your screening company, especially if the injunction was obtained very recently.

The Foreclosure Story

Every property manager has heard one or more versions of the “foreclosure story”. The first version is where the applicant tells you that she was living in a home, and the owner of the home got foreclosed on, forcing her to move. The other story is the applicant was the actual owner of a single family home, was foreclosed on and had to move.

If the applicant was the resident who “supposedly” had to move, you need to verify this. How would you normally do this? Well, you would call the owner of the home that the applicant is or was renting and verify the information. The problem is that the applicant tells you that the owner just “walked away” from the mortgage and will not answer his phone. No one has seen or heard from the owner. Are you going to take this for an answer, feeling sorry for the poor applicant who most likely stopped paying rent months ago when she got served foreclosure papers, or will you try to verify the story? You MUST verify the story, and all you need to do is look at the public records, put in the owner’s name in the civil court records to find the foreclosure, or put in the property address in the tax appraiser’s records and begin to dig. If the owner was truly foreclosed upon, you will find that information in the court records. Additionally, ask the applicant for copies of rent checks to see if she has been paying the rent to the owner for the 8 months the foreclosure has taken, or has the applicant taken advantage of the situation and not paid a dime, further hurting the owner? If the applicant stopped paying rent to her prior manager, what is to stop her from doing it to you?

If the applicant tells you that she was a homeowner and due to unfortunate circumstances, got underwater and ended up being foreclosed upon, you need to use the exact same methods as outlined above and look up the public records. If you can’t find the information, ask more questions. Many people who are foreclosed upon decide to stop paying their mortgage and now all of a sudden have $2000 extra each month which they promptly blow on things they don’t need. Now they are faced with paying real rent to a real manager who can really evict them, and they have no money, no savings and possibly no job. Don’t let your emotions make you sympathetic and let your guard down.


As you can see, the public records are full of valuable information, and you need to figure out how to use them. Start playing around on your computer. Go to the civil court record section of your county court’s website or the sheriff’s department site, and find the screen where you input the names. It is usually simple to use, and once you know how to input a name, it becomes easier. Read the instructions carefully. Sometimes they require last names and first names with a space between them, sometimes a comma. Every single courthouse and even different systems, such as criminal and tax records, within the same courthouse can require a different way of inputting a name or an address. Learn the system, take notes, play around and bookmark the site, putting it in your favorite places, or better yet, save it as an icon on your desktop for easy use. Call our office if you need help, as we are in the court systems all day long, checking dockets and doing research which pertains to the eviction cases, and we will be happy to send you the proper website and page links so you don’t have to waste your time. All it takes is getting started. The more you play around, the more fun you will have, because invariably you will begin looking up your friends and coworkers and find some very interesting stuff indeed! Best yet, there is no need to make a trip to the courthouse, as it is all online.


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