How To Look Up Criminal Records

Understanding how to look up criminal records is not as simple as one would think, but we’ve broken it down into a couple of simple steps.

Keep in mind here that there are lots of “free” or “cheap” criminal record databases out there, but has we have pointed out in the past online background check services are not what you think. They miss critical issues.  So if you are looking for “free” or “cheap” criminal records to add a piece of paper to your file, you might want to look elsewhere.

But if you want to know how to dig deep and find criminal records the right way, you’ve come to the right place.

There are several critical pieces of information you need to know about the person you are going to look up criminal records on prior to commencing a search:

  • Full name and date of birth, preferably from an official source of identification. While this seems simplistic, it’s critical to have accurate information, as most criminal record searches must have an exact match of name and date of birth.
  • Addresses where the person has resided and/or worked. The addresses are critical, as you need to know which counties or states the person has resided in. This information can be obtained from investigative databases that have credit header information. If possible, you can simply ask the person where he or she has resided or have them fill out a form; however, if he or she is trying to hide something, the answers may not be completely truthful.

Here is how to to look up criminal records in a couple of simple steps:

1Search the local court jurisdictions

The single most important thing that you need to do is to determine which county the person is residing in so that you can search the local court in that state. Be wary though, as most counties have separate courts for serious criminal offenses and for more minor offenses, and “minor offenses” in some states consist of up to six months in jail.

Some counties have put the information online, but many jurisdictions have not. In cases where you can’t get the information online, you can hire a court retriever in the local jurisdiction to search the records (check out BRB’s public retriever network) or call the court directly (sometimes they will help you over the phone).

2Search the state criminal record repository

Many states have a central criminal record repository where criminal records from the state’s various jurisdictions are aggregated in a state agency database. For example, you look up criminal records on someone through the New Jersey State Police, although there are restrictions on who can run the search. (New Jersey-licensed private investigators can.)

Although it’s convenient to search an entire state in one shot, there have been many stories of inaccurate information in these databases, so be wary of using this as a primary source of information.

3Search federal criminal records

Most people think of criminal records – including those for drug possession, driving while intoxicated, or assault and battery – as state matters. However, there are a number of federal statutes that can result in someone facing criminal charges, especially with white-collar matters.

The simplest way to look up federal criminal records is to search Pacer, a federal repository for all federal lawsuits. There are many other databases – including Courtlink – that can search federal criminal cases. It’s always a good idea to use multiple sources for each search, as one database may have information that another does not.

4Search nationwide repositories

As we have discussed in previous posts, it’s not wise to rely on nationwide criminal background check repositories as a sole source of information. However, they can come in handy when you are trying to find criminal records in a jurisdiction where the person may have been arrested that is outside the ones you are searching.

The one we recommend is SearchSystems.net, which reportedly has more than 400 million records. What we like most about SearchSystems is the transparency of what is covered in the database, unlike most other databases you see.

Important Things to Consider

  • There is no one central repository for searching criminal records, despite claims to the contrary.
  • Always use multiple sources to look up criminal records, even if there is an overlap in coverage.
  • Read the fine print! Always know what information is contained in a database, government repository, or court computer – the information you get is only as good as what is contained in the results.
  • Always determine the dates that are covered in whatever you are searching. If the person you are looking into lived in a jurisdiction 15 years ago but the database covers only 10 years, you’ve got a problem.
  • If you find a serious issue, retrieve the documents to confirm that (a) the information matches the person you are investigating and (b) you get the facts about the case.
  • Going straight to the source (the court) is the best thing you can possibly do to conduct a criminal background check.

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4 replies
  1. Bill Steward
    Bill Steward says:

    Thank You for all the excellent information ,you are obviously a confident and generous Professional. Your thoroughness is very much appreciated. Most Agencies hide in the woods and tell you what they do but do not go into detail. I am an old ex-PI who worked during the pre-electronic era, No cell phones etc. Hours spent in Court Houses are now available on the internet. But don’t totally rely on the internet, a personal visit to the site can be fruitful. Get out of the office once in awhile, practice Humint.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Thanks Bill. In the electronic age, investigators tend to rely on information through online sources because they are quick and easy. I totally agree that can’t totally rely on what you find and a personal visit to the courthouse is critical .

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