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