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In the United States, criminal records are considered public record. In general, most, if not all, criminal records are available through public records, but there are a few caveats to this that are described in more detail below.

Types of Criminal Records Available through Public Records

  • Felony – A felony is the most serious class of offense throughout the United States.
  • Misdemeanor – A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that is less serious than a felony and more serious than an infraction.
  • Infraction – An infraction is a violation of an administrative regulation, an ordinance, a municipal code, and, in some jurisdictions, a state or local traffic rule.
  • Arrest record – An arrest record is the recorded documentation illustrating an individual’s criminal history in the event that the individual has been charged, but not necessarily convicted, of a crime.

Types of Records Not Available through Public Records

  • Records relating to criminal activity for anyone under the age of 18 (due to privacy laws related to minors)
  • Records that have been expunged, sealed, or otherwise cleared by the court

Access to Criminal Records through Public Records

Access to criminal records varies by state. For example, in some counties felony and misdemeanor records are maintained in a combined index, while in others felonies and misdemeanor records must be checked separately. In other states, infractions may be handled at local town courts.

In New York, for example, criminal records can be filed in the Supreme Court, District Court, Criminal Courts of the City of New York, or town, city or village courts, depending on the level of offense.

Arrest records, on the other hand, are typically held with law enforcement agencies and can also be included with court filings if formal charges are filed. The key distinction here is that individuals can be arrested, but not formally charged with a criminal offense. In this case, the local law enforcement agency may be the only place to access the record.

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There is no such thing as a national criminal records check (at least not available to the public). It’s a myth spread by numerous investigative firms, investigative databases, and commercial public record vendors.

Even in this digital age, instant access to digitized criminal records is not available, and in many cases old-fashioned “boots on the ground” techniques must be relied upon to do a proper criminal check.

While there are many firms and databases advertising that they provide a national criminal records check, it’s at the very least misleading, and at worst, completely false advertising. (In Depth: Why Online Background Check Services Fail.)

Why Can’t You Conduct a National Criminal Records Check?

There are literally thousands of separate criminal indexes maintained at the county, parish, township, and city levels throughout the United States. A true national criminal records check would require access to each individual index. The truth of the matter is that there is no central way to search the thousands of criminal indexes. So unless you want to go through the time and expense of searching every county, parish, township, and city criminal index, the mythical national criminal records check is still a myth.

The only true national criminal records check database is with the NCIC – the National Crime Information Center – but this database is NOT accessible to the general public and is only available to criminal justice agencies.

Statewide Criminal Check

There are a number of states where you can search statewide criminal records. Among the states that offer statewide criminal record checks are New York, Connecticut, Michigan, Colorado, and Florida. These state criminal indexes receive data from each state’s counties, parishes, townships, and cities. However, some states do not provide a complete history of felonies and misdemeanors, so read the fine print.

For example, the State Police of Michigan provides records of felonies and “serious misdemeanors that are punishable by over 93 days,” which only covers a portion of the criminal cases filed.

County Criminal Check

A more thorough approach is to search the county-level criminal records where the person has lived, as well as the statewide criminal records. Be aware that in some counties felony and misdemeanor records are maintained in a combined index, while in others felonies and misdemeanor records must be checked separately.

Federal Criminal Records

Most U.S. District Court federal criminal records are accessible through PACER, the online federal court docket system. Note that not all federal criminal records have been digitized or go back as far as you need. Based on our own experiences, PACER has been known to miss some things, so it is wise to use a secondary source to search federal criminal records, such as Courtlink, Lexis Nexis, or Westlaw.

Final Thought

The mythical national criminal records check remains a myth, but with some proper techniques you can confidently conduct a true criminal check.

Other Reading:

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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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Why, you may ask, is a “nationwide criminal background check” complete BS?  For one thing, there is no such thing.

Last week we highlighted some warnings about online background check services, and the gaping holes that these services have.

What most of these services offer, including the one we highlighted, is a “nationwide criminal background check” which has even more holes than a donut shop.

Now the facts…

There are over 3,000 counties in the United States, many of which have multiple courthouses which maintain criminal records. The procedures to access these records vary, most of which can’t be accessed through a central repository. Even so, many of these courts have not yet digitized records making them completely inaccessible online.

There is no official count as to how many criminal records (arrests and/or convictions) are accessible online, but it’s pretty minuscule and spread across to many different systems, courts and repositories that it will make you want to pull out your hair just thinking about it.

“True” Nationwide Criminal Background Check

As we have discussed previously, there is only one “true” nationwide criminal background check in the U.S. today. The N.C.I.C. (National Criminal Information Center), which is a central repository for criminal record information that is available only to registered law enforcement agencies and related criminal justice organizations which is not available to the public.

Even so, there have been questions about the reliability and accuracy of the NCIC database so even if you did have access to it, it may not be the most comprehensive way to find criminal records.

Further Reading

If you are serious about conducting a “nationwide criminal background check”, here are some helpful links:

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There are several things you should know about the person you are investigating before you conduct a criminal background check like an “expert”:

  1. Full name (preferably what appears on the person’s driver’s license or another government-issued document) including any nickname and maiden name
  2. Date of birth from an official source (e.g., driver’s license, passport, etc.)
  3. Addresses and/or counties where the person has resided (more on that later)
  4. A Social Security number (helpful, but not necessary)
For simplicity’s sake, we have broken the ways to conduct a criminal background check into four categories: online databases, “official” repositories, courthouses and other sources.

Online Databases

Online databases offer a quick and easy way to search millions of criminal records.  Investigators have access to professional databases, which offer a wider range of criminal records, but for the general public, there are hundreds of online service providers that respond to criminal record inquiries.

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

If you use another service, be sure to read the fine print in the description of database coverage to know exactly what is included in the search and the dates that are covered.  For example, some database providers search only sex offender records, which can be performed for free through the Department of Justice website.

The benefits of using online databases are that they are quick, easy and relatively inexpensive.  However, they are not comprehensive, are filled with holes and inaccuracies, and should not be relied on exclusively.  There are numerous examples of an individual or business that opted to take the “short road” in terms of a background check provider and failed to uncover critical information.

“Official” Repositories

Official repositories include state and federal government repositories where you can access information directly through the source.  For example, through Pacer you can search federal criminal records.  Additionally many states offer ways to conduct a statewide criminal search through either the state court system, like the New York Office of Court Administration, where you can conduct a statewide criminal record search in New York, or, as in Connecticut, where you can make a request through the Department of Public Safety, Division of State Police.

The benefit, of course, is that you are using an official repository run by the state or federal government; however, these repositories are only as good as the information they contain.  In Texas, it was recently reported that one out of every four criminal records never made it to the Department of Public Safety Computerized Criminal History System, which is not terribly comforting.

We have also found numerous instances over the years of cases not appearing in Pacer but appearing in other investigative databases.  Also, it’s critical to understand that the person may have committed a crime across state lines, which can be found out the hard way.

Courthouses

Going straight to the source is the best thing you can possibly do to conduct a criminal background check.  You can be confident that the information is accurate; you can typically search further back in time; and if necessary, you can retrieve the documents from the case right on the spot to confirm with certainty that the case is related to the right person.

The issue with going to the courthouse directly is that it is relatively cost prohibitive, especially if the person has resided in multiple jurisdictions.  Also, if the person happened to commit a crime across a county line, it may not show up in the local courthouse.  The fact remains, there is no better way to conduct a criminal background check that to go straight to the court.

Other Sources

In addition to consulting the sources above, there are several other things you can do to find criminal records that may or may not have been identified in the above sources, including accessing the sex offender registry, state prison records and federal prison records.  Additionally, it’s a good idea to search local media publications or police blotters, as someone may have been charged with violating a local ordinance or pleaded down to a lesser charge that may not be found in the public record.

Key Takeaways

  • There is no one central repository for searching criminal records, despite claims to the contrary.
  • Always use multiple sources to conduct a criminal background check, 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 only covers 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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Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with what Hal Humphreys, from Pursuit Magazine, believes to be one of the absolute best blogs in the investigative industry!

Below are several links that are helpful when conducting a New York background check on a company or an individual. Although this does not cover all of the sources available in New York, these are some of the more useful links when conducting a New York background check:

E-Courts

One of the most critical areas in conducting a background check is court records.  The New York State Unified Court System maintains an online case information system called E-courts which provides free case information for criminal, family, housing court as well as active and disposed civil supreme and local civil courts.  In certain cases, where cases have been filed electronically, docket sheets as well as certain court documents are also available online.  Based on our own research, while this site can be a helpful starting point and appears to be updated regularly, this is not a comprehensive search.  We have found numerous instances where onsite searches in local courts or searches through third party databases came across lawsuits that were not on the e-courts system, especially cases more than a few years old.

Department of State Corporation Records

The New York Department of State corporation and business entity database can be searched for the status of corporations, limited liability companies or limited partnerships to determine if the entity is active or inactive.  In most cases, the website will also identify the initial incorporation date, entity address, business type and corporate name history, but the site does not provide names of officers, directors or registered agents (which is typically the most critical information).  The site does not allow you to search by officer, director, or registered agent, so you will have to know the name of the company that you are searching, although third-party databases typically provide the names. Copies of incorporation documents can be ordered directly from the website, but if you need documents in a hurry, you can use outside services, which can typically get records within a few days.

New York City Property

ACRIS is one most comprehensive local government databases of property records that we have come across.  Not only do they have records dating back 30+ years, but in most cases copies of deeds, mortgages and transfers can be viewed or downloaded from the website for free.  The ACRIS website also includes purchases of co-operative apartments and can search federal tax liens as well.  This database only covers the five boroughs of New York (Kings, Queens, Richmond, Bronx and New York counties).

New York Criminal Records

The New York Office of Court Administration (“OCA”) is a central repository for statewide criminal history records throughout the state of New York.  A statewide criminal record search can be conducted for $65 based on a exact name and date of birth match.  Applications can be submitted in person or mailed and results will be returned within a few days.  Private investigators typically have direct access to OCA and records can be retrieved within 24 hours, but typically results can be received within a few hours.

Sex Offenders

The New York Division of Criminal Justice Services provides a database of category 2 (moderate risk) or category 3 (high risk) sex offenders; by law, Level 1 (low risk) sex offenders are not published.  The database can be searched by Last Name, County or Zip Code.

New York Professional Licenses

The New York State Office of Professions database can confirm the status hundreds of professional licenses overseen by the Education Department including Accountants, Doctors and Nurses. There is also a separate list of licenses overseen by the Division of Licensing which includes private investigators and real estate professionals.  The type of information differs based on the license, but typically the status of the license, date of original license and any disciplinary actions that have been filed against the licensee is provided.

Inmate Locator

The New York State Department of Corrections offers an online database of anyone who has been confined in state prison since the early 1970’s, providing specific details on the dates of incarceration, crimes convicted, facility of incarceration and other details.  This does not include persons who were committed to city or county level prisons.  Also note, that most white-collar criminals are typically incarcerated in federal prison.

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