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I often do stories on different frauds or lawsuits in the investment industry. You can rarely find information about court cases on Google. If a newspaper or blog picked up the story, then you’ll see some naughty bits, but the full Monty will be hidden in the courthouse website, behind a paywall. It is public information, however, so you don’t have to be a lawyer to use it.

What you do is go straight to the courthouse’s website. For example, suppose a disgruntled ex-convict threatens to sue you in Los Angeles Superior Court because he doesn’t like that you reported on his case. Well, you can to to the court’s website, register, and search for the party’s name. The fee is $4.75 per search in LA, charged to your credit card.

For federal court, the system to use is PACER. The fee is just $0.10 per page (although some cases have hundreds or thousands of pages). Each court has its own data repository, so first you have to find out where the case is located. Still, there is a lot of good stuff here.

In some jurisdictions, especially smaller counties, you may have to go down to the courthouse yourself. You will also need to go to the courthouse to read transcripts. In most courts, one transcript is kept on file, and anyone wanting additional copies has to buy them directly from the court reporter.

The most important point is this: just because you can’t find it on Google doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You can find tons of great public information available behind paywalls, once you know where to look. A neighbor who is a lawyer explained PACER to me, and I’m glad he did.

Likewise, just because you can find something on Google doesn’t mean that it’s real. Years ago, I had an editor assign me a story about people in a particular profession who became CEOs. I couldn’t find anyone, and he was surprised. After all, when he Googled “occupation” and “CEO”, he got thousands of hits!

However, I Googled “CEO” and “puppies”, and got even more hits. Google is wonderful, but it isn’t perfect.