Driving History as a Private Investigation Tool
- January 13, 2021
- by Steven Mason
Editor's Note: This article was written by Steven Mason of Mason Investigative Solutions about historical scene canvassing using body cameras. The opinions expressed here belong to Steven Mason.
If you’ve been a private investigator for any length of time, chances are you’ve researched an individual’s driving history – a significant source of information and intelligence in almost any type of legal case, from civil litigation to family law. Such an investigation can uncover information about vehicles associated with the individual, locations frequented, alcohol and drug abuse, current and previous residences, persistent failure to obey traffic laws, accident history, failure to follow court orders, and a host of other useful data. You also likely know that accurately determining an individual’s driving history, much like uncovering a person’s criminal history, is rarely a straightforward process. But it is possible when you know where to look and what steps to take.
Motor vehicle Division Records
A common misconception is that a state’s Motor Vehicle Division (MVD) possesses and reports the complete driving record of anyone who is licensed or has a registered vehicle in the state. As much as that might make sense, it’s seldom the case. Thanks to the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), most private investigators have access to records held by their state’s MVD, which does make an investigator’s job somewhat easier.
The way in which driving records are updated (or not, as is often the case) is another hurdle in obtaining a complete record from the MVD. In almost all jurisdictions, documentation of driving infractions follows a similar course: a law enforcement agency cites an individual for failure to obey traffic laws. After the officer issues the citation, a copy of the citation is filed with the court of jurisdiction, the issuing law enforcement agency’s records department, the prosecutor’s office (criminal citations), and the MVD.
Once the case is disposed of, the court is supposed to send the final disposition to the MVD for inclusion in the individual’s driving record, but that frequently doesn’t happen. Even when dispositions are accurately recorded, many MVDs provide only a list of convictions, rather than a comprehensive record of all dispositions, to a requesting investigator. Whether or not dispositions are accurately recorded, the all-too-frequent result for investigators is an incomplete record. Fortunately, there are steps investigators can take to fill in the missing pieces, as detailed below.
The first step in compiling an accurate record of a person’s driving history, as in any investigation, is to fully confirm the identity of the person being researched. Generally, some of this information will come from the client, supplemented by proprietary database research to verify the spelling of the subject’s name, date of birth, and social security number. Some proprietary databases will even provide the individual’s driver’s license number.
While you’re logged in to a proprietary database, go ahead and run a criminal records search and address report, assuming you have a permissible purpose for doing so. These searches will help you identify the individual’s address history as well as potential traffic infraction records. Although these databases can provide useful data, that information can occasionally be inaccurate. The upshot is that you should treat all recorded incidents as potential issues until you can verify that they actually are infractions.
Once you have the full identity and address history of the individual you’re researching and perhaps some useful criminal record leads, it’s now time to submit a request to the MVD offices in all states where the individual has resided. If you are not familiar with how to access your state’s MVD records, ask a local private investigator to guide you through the steps. Remember, as a private investigator, your network is everything! You should be able to obtain an extended driving record from the MVD, although the time period covered by MVD records will vary from state to state. Also, as noted, the MVD in many states will provide only a list of convictions, which may or may not be helpful depending on your investigative goals.
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The next step in compiling a thorough driving history is to research court records. Remember, courts receive a copy of the citation, but they don’t always ensure that the case disposition is sent to the MVD. Using the address history obtained during your proprietary database checks, research court records in all jurisdictions covered by the address history. If you can research court records for the entire state where the individual has lived, even better. In many cases, you’ll find that a court record does not appear on your certified MVD driving record for the individual or, equally important, that the records provided by the court and MVD contain different information.
The final step in developing an accurate driver history is to research records maintained by every law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction over where your target has lived. Again, using the address history you compiled from the proprietary databases, make a list of all law enforcement jurisdictions that may hold traffic records for your subject. From there, file public record requests with those law enforcement agencies seeking a list of all involvements and department contacts. Although this task may seem tedious, the payoff can be enormous. Armed with this list, you can obtain a host of additional law enforcement records that will undoubtedly tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the traffic contact.
Now that you have obtained traffic records from the MVD, courts, proprietary databases, and law enforcement agencies, you can accurately report the individual’s true driving history to your client. What’s more, you can use the wealth of information you’ve obtained about your subject to further any investigative goals beyond uncovering traffic records.
Last year, a law firm retained me to locate an individual who was one of the FBI’s most wanted fraud fugitives. After carefully studying the fugitive’s address history, I discovered the name of a woman who seemingly used all the same UPS Store P.O. boxes as the fugitive. I quickly identified the woman and went to work building her driver’s history to assist in locating her (she and the fugitive moved to different states frequently). My theory was that if I could locate the woman, I would most likely locate the fugitive – an old trick I had learned as a young deputy U.S. marshal.
After compiling driver records and associated vehicle information from all the sources mentioned above, I had an increasingly growing list of vehicles associated with the woman. As with the fugitive’s address history, one thing about many of the vehicles stood out: they were registered either to the same company or to a company with a similar name. Armed with this information, I requested a new search at the MVD of all the vehicles registered to those companies. With the new list of vehicles in hand, I was able to trace the vehicles using license plate reader technology and located the hiding spot for the fugitive. Shortly thereafter, he was taken into custody.
While the depth of our investigations can often be constrained by budgets and deadlines, knowing how to accurately determine an individual’s true driving record can be a game-changer in case success.
About the Author
Private investigator Steven Mason of Mason Investigative Solutions is a former federal criminal investigator and certified Federal Law Enforcement Training Center adjunct instructor. Mr. Mason holds a bachelor’s degree in intelligence from the American Military University, graduating summa cum laude. His area of specialty includes criminal defense and complex civil litigation.