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Under The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Title 5 of the United States Code, section 552, any person has the right to request access to public records: criminal records, arrests & warrants, inmate records, vital records & more.

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Availability, Accuracy and Accessibility of Criminal Records

Criminal records can make for some interesting reading and it is absolutely necessary to look into the criminal history of a potential business partner, employee, or boyfriend or girlfriend. Criminal records are often stored by the type of crime committed, so you may need to perform multiple searches to find everything you are looking for. It is always helpful to narrow the search if you know what type of crime the person might have committed.

Availability of Criminal Records by State

Each state has its own privacy laws which may prevent obtaining a complete criminal record. Usually public information is available if someone has been convicted of a crime, such as name, age and birth date, gender, ethnicity, the type of crime or conviction, and where the person is being held (jail, state, or federal prison).

The names of victims in a crime are often protected by privacy laws, and with the exception of sex offenders the address of a released or paroled prisoner will not be available. Registered sex offenders must update law enforcement on their current addresses which will show up during a sex offender registry search.

For Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) records, only the person who holds the driver's license may request information. If a DMV records search is conducted by someone other than the license holder, a signed consent form must be presented. DMV records are protected under privacy laws more than misdemeanor or prison records.

A majority of states have online search engines where you can find out about criminal records for specific people. You must have some basic information in hand before you can initiate a search such as name, age, and so on, or a prisoner number if the person is an inmate in county jail or state prison. Beyond that, more sophisticated search databases will allow you to enter additional information to narrow your search.

Go to the law enforcement websites for your particular state. If you cannot find a direct address, the overall government site will allow you to search the site or may provide a direct link to criminal records searches. Be careful to identify that you are looking at a legitimate government website—occasionally official sites are run by third parties and may have a commercial look and feel, but this is rare. Look for official state seals and links to other parts of the government site to ensure you are on a legitimate page.

How Criminal Records Are Created and Stored

A record of every trial that takes place in a courtroom is compiled and kept by each courthouse. These documents are called dockets. Criminal records with varying less detailed information are created from dockets, leaving out many of the details of the trial and conviction. These are the records which are often searched by citizens.

These records are often stored on site at courthouses or secure locations. Many courts are storing information electronically which is very secure and easy to access at a later date. Not all courts have records stored online yet, which may make a criminal records search a little more complicated. In addition, if you are searching for court records you may be provided with audio or video recordings of the trial in addition to paper documents.

How to Access Criminal Records

There are two main ways to access criminal records. An online search may prove very effective if the state has created search engines and databases where you can enter search criteria and access many types of criminal records. Check your state's government website, Department of Corrections, Department of Motor Vehicles, or law enforcement sites to see if they have these databases.

The second way to search criminal records is to go to the courthouse where the trial took place and ask the Court Clerk to search criminal records for you. This is probably the most effective way to ensure that the information you receive is up to date and accurate. You may also have access to more documents than you might with an online search for criminal records. You will need to present a photo ID at the time you make the request, and must allow several days for the Clerk to find records and send them to you.

There are almost always costs involved with records searches. If you require photocopies of records or certified copies of records, there will probably be additional costs. These are typically nominal. To reduce costs, make sure you have complete identifying information before you begin a search—for some government websites or clerk searches you will be charged even if the search does not produce results.

The Accuracy of Criminal Records

Criminal records searches are used by law enforcement as part of their daily duties so they are definitely accurate. Regular citizens do not have access to everything a law enforcement officer might know, but the information is as complete as possible. Information is often protected by privacy laws, however, so what you find in a citizen search may not be complete.

Keep in mind that a real human has to enter information into an online storage area and mistakes can be made. If you detect a mistake in a criminal record, contact the Clerk of Courts or law enforcement to find out about processes to correct criminal records.

For a discussion on U.S. Criminal Law, please visit the following link:

U.S. Criminal Law


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