Author: Ross Zimmerman

From the Director: February 2021

Skip Tracing: What It Is and How to Do It Ethically

Barbara Engstrom, Executive Director King County Law Library with Stephen Seely, Outreach Services Attorney King County Law Library

One of the most popular CLEs that we offer at the King County Law Library is on the topic of skip tracing. In this column, we’ll discuss the burning questions regarding all things skip tracing with Stephen Seely, our Outreach Services Attorney.

BE: Stephen, I’ve always found skip tracing to be a very arcane term but for some reason it seems to be commonly used by attorneys or at least in CLE titles. What does skip tracing actually mean, and where does the term come from?

SS: Skip tracing is an old term of art from the private investigation industry, but understanding it is very straightforward. Historically, skip tracing was the process of tracking down someone who had neglected to pay a debt and had ran off. Most people are familiar with the related phrase “to skip town.” The term can be understood by breaking it down into two parts. First, there’s the “skip” which references the scofflaw you’re looking for. Second, there’s the tracking down of the skip, referred to as the “trace.” In modern use, skip tracing has much broader meaning than just finding people who owe debts. The term now means finding people, property, and assets.

BE: Good to know, so skip tracing is essentially the process of finding people and assets. What are the most common scenarios where attorneys would need to do people or asset finding?

SS: Well, there are many reasons why an attorney might need to do some skip tracing, but I would divide them into three general categories. The first category would be finding people. As with the traditional meaning of skip tracing, tracking down someone who owes a debt or is subject to a court judgment or garnishment is still very common. Tracking people who are involved in litigation is also very common. This could include finding parties in order to serve process, finding potential witness, or finding reluctant witnesses. The second category would be tracking down personal assets or information about real property for due diligence purposes. The third category would be tracking down valuations of real property and assessing personal assets.

BE: Much of my knowledge of private detective work comes from watching TV in the 1970s which included a steady diet of Colombo reruns. In my mind, skip tracing is rooting around in dumpsters in a ratty tan trench coat, tracking down marks at the horse track, and absentmindedly saying “oh and one last thing…” before neatly tying the case up. Presumably, things are much different now. What are your top resources for people finding?

SS: I’m happy to report that dumpster diving and trips to the track are no longer required. Skip tracing can largely be done online now, which makes it well suited to the realities of working during a pandemic. In my skip tracing CLE I go through dozens of websites for tracking down particular types of information. We don’t have the time or space to go over all of those now, but I do have recommendations for three sites that provide good jumping-off points. One of the trickiest things at the outset of this type of research is confirming that you have found the correct person. It can be very frustrating to spend a significant amount of time tracing a lead only to subsequently discover he wasn’t the correct “skip” after all. I’ve found that https://www.fastpeoplesearch.com and https://www.spokeo.com are both excellent places to start a free search. They cast a fairly broad net but offer enough information to help you decide if the profile you’re looking at is actually the person you’re looking for. Because social media has taken on an outsized role in the way that people connect with each other, if you have a person’s social media handle, using https://www.social-searcher.com can also be an excellent starting point for combing through social media platforms.

BE: We’ve all heard the horror stories of the ethical pitfalls of social media and litigation. What ethical considerations should attorneys be aware of when doing skip tracing research?

SS: Yes, this brings up a good point. I’m currently developing a CLE on the ethical issues that arise for attorneys when doing internet and social media research. This is a developing area of the law but all of the same basic ethical principles and proscriptions that would apply to real world interactions and tangible research also apply in the world of electronic research. As a general rule: if you wouldn’t do it in person, don’t do it online. Washington does not yet have any on-point ethics opinions about using the Internet to skip trace. However, the American Bar Association does have a formal ethics opinion regarding the more specific use of social media as a tool to investigate jurors. The gist of the opinion is that a lawyer may passively review a juror’s public presence on the Internet but may not communicate with a juror. The opinion also explains that requesting access to a private area on a juror’s social media (i.e., “friending” or “following”) is considered communication.

When in doubt, it’s advisable to err on the side of caution and limit yourself to publicly available information that you can obtain passively, without eliciting it from the skip themselves. And, as with any situation where you find yourself in an ethical grey area, it’s best to contact the WSBA’s ethics hotline for guidance regarding your situation at (206) 727-8284.

BE: This is great information Stephen, thanks for sharing. If people have questions, where can they go to find more information?

SS: My pleasure. For more information I recommend attending the King County Law Library’s Skip Tracing CLE. You can find the next scheduled class on the Law Library’s website by going to our website, www.kcll.org, and clicking on the “CLEs/Classes” option in the menu at the top of the page. As I noted earlier, I’m developing a CLE on the ethics of internet and social media research for attorneys. You can subscribe to KCLL’s newsletter to be alerted when that class becomes available.

BE: Thanks again, Stephen. For questions about skip tracing or any other research needs, remember that you can always contact the King County Law Library at services@kcll.org.

From the Director: January 2021

Contact Tracing: Tracking Legislation in Washington State in a Pandemic Session

Barbara Engstrom, Executive Director King County Law Library

While the vaccine is producing some light at the end of the dreadful tunnel that was 2020, the effects of the pandemic are still going to be felt for the foreseeable future and the new legislative session is no exception. The current plan is to conduct the session almost entirely remotely in the House and a hybrid of remote and in-person in the Senate. Understanding the deviations from the standard script unique to this session will be helpful when tracking legislation both now and in the future.

Introducing Legislation – Urgent, Targeted & Fiscally Aware

One of the biggest changes for the pandemic legislative session will concern what types of bills will be advanced. It is expected that floor action will take longer leaving committees less time to do their work. To streamline the process, the House Democrats have been given guidance on what bills will be given priority in this legislative session. According to their 2021 Legislative Session Bill Advancement Guidelines1: “First and foremost, bills should only be introduced if they are urgently needed and important to pass DURING the 2021 session. If that is not the case, please wait to introduce your bill until next year.” Democratic House members are also restricted to introducing no more than 7 bills and committee chairs are expected to move fewer bills out of committee.

The guidance outlines the four major subject areas that will be considered:

  • Advancing racial equity
  • Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Advancing economic recovery
  • Addressing the global climate crisis.

Bill are also expected to be fiscally aware in that they either save money or increase the efficacy of the appropriation, increase access to federal funding, or increase fiscal efficacy on multiple government levels in responding to the pandemic or economic recovery.

In addition, bill sponsors are also expected to do pre-introduction legwork to thoroughly vet the bill with stakeholders, discuss the cost viability with the Appropriations chair, determine whether there is a companion bill in the Senate and the likelihood of its moving forward, and determine whether is it likely to generate substantial opposition in committee or on the floor.

What this means for tracking legislation is that generally one will only find legislation on very limited topics, companion bills will not be the norm, and fiscal impact will be a touchstone for all legislation moving forward. Currently there is no bill advancement guidance from the House Republicans, but for bill tracking purposes it is safe to assume that the Republicans will also similarly prioritize bills to facilitate advancement of their legislative priorities with the limited time and resources available this session.

Committee Hearings in the Time of Zoom (and Zoom-bombing)

How committee hearings will be conducted will also impact legislative tracking. Rather than in-person hearings, most committee members will attend remotely and the public will be allowed to testify from remote locations. The expectation is that without the burden of traveling to Olympia, public participation in committee hearings will increase significantly. To facilitate remote testimony, the legislature has created an online platform allowing witness registration within as little as an hour before a scheduled hearing begins. https://app.leg.wa.gov/csiremote/joint Those unable to testify remotely, will find expanded opportunities to testify via a written document or email this session. For tracking legislation, the primary impact will be felt in the bill reports coming out committee where the additional public testimony will be summarized and the affiliation of the persons testifying noted.

Some of you, like me, may be thinking, how are they going to control remote testimony from going off the rails? As noted on the remote testimony webpage, the ground rules are the same as in-person testimony. “People observing or testifying from a remote location are subject to the same rules of decorum as people at the Capitol. You must be recognized by the Chair before speaking, and you may be required to limit your comments. There is no guarantee that those who sign in will be allowed to speak or be able to speak at specific times. Please see How to Testify in Committee for more details.” In an interview with Crosscut, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma said that based on her experience with remote hearings and testimony from the previous session, she’s not too worried about Zoom-bombing. She noted that it was generally brief, sometimes amusing and almost always involved someone’s butt. “The most important thing, Jinkins said, is to make sure legislative staffers can quickly kick people out of online committee meetings if they are causing issues. She said legislative technology experts are preparing for all of that.”2

Live from Olympia It’s …. TVW

The final thing to note is that TVW will likely play an outsized role in legislative tracking this session. TVW started as an open government initiative way back 1993 and went on air in 1995. This C-SPAN of Washington State covers government, politics, and public policy. In this session expect to see more emphasis placed on the TVW livestreams and recordings. If you are following legislation in real time, you can go directly to TVW, and search the daily schedule. https://www.tvw.org/ If you are tracking legislation at a later date, links to TVW are often included in the Bill Information webpage for current (and past) legislation. Look for the Available Videos section. https://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/

A Note About Transparency

I’ve done quite a bit of legislative research in other states and in foreign jurisdictions. When I’m researching legislation in Washington, I often find myself catching new things that have been added to the online research tools to make the legislative process more transparent and the documents more

easily accessible. This is not the case in most other jurisdictions. I’m very grateful to the Washington State legislature for not only saying that they value transparency but actually making it happen.

Need Help?

Please visit the King County Law Library at https://kcll.org/ for help tracking current legislation or reviewing legislative history for older legislation. If you have any questions, would like help accessing materials, or need assistance with your research please contact us at services@kcll.org.

1 See 2021 Legislative Session Bill Advancement Guidelines. https://beta.documentcloud.org/documents/20418501-bill-advancement-guidelines-for-2021-session-11-24 

2 Melissa Santos, How the Washington State Legislature Plans to Go Remote During COVID-19, available at https://crosscut.com/politics/2020/11/how-wa-legislature-plans-go-remote-during-covid-19