We Know: How to Access Criminal Records

Who retains records of crimes?

Crimes are committed on both the state and federal level. Criminals often move from state to state, hoping their past stays behind; and others may even move from country to country. How do you track data through such a long trail?

There's a myth that a national criminal database is available and accessible by the public. The only American national criminal database is the NCIC, legally accessible only by the FBI and registered law enforcement officers, and serious criminal penalties will apply to those illegally accessing or purchasing information from it. Beyond the NCIC, there are only twenty-nine states that have a statewide criminal database. For the other twenty-one states, crimes are recorded primarily on a county or parish basis.

Where are federal records available?

People convicted of federal crimes are the easiest to track down, simply because all federal crimes are kept in the PACER database. This is the US Party/Case Index used by most federal courts, and it will charge you eight cents per page as of January 1, 2005, to access their databases. Keep in mind that federal court records can be fairly lengthy.

The cost of accessing this database highlights the first problem with criminal records checks: most jurisdictions, whether federal, state, or local, charge for records, and almost all charge for detailed records. You should be prepared to pay sometimes hefty fees to get state criminal records. You can use a criminal records search service, but you will pay less when you access directly from the government.

How do I locate information about state and local crimes?

Researching criminal histories becomes even trickier when on the local level.

One thing you can try, if you have the proper information, is to request a credit check. This probably won't work subtly; unlike criminal information, you have to have permission from the person involved to run a credit check. With a credit report, though, you have a pretty accurate record of where your person has lived in the past. In some states, like Florida, you'll get really lucky -- they have free online access on a county-by-county basis to criminal and other court records. In most states, you'll have to look up the specific jurisdiction in which the person you're checking lived, and then fill out a form and pay for the records.

A way to save yourself a little money is to ask for a list of previous addresses, then compare them to the ones on the credit check list. If you find addresses on the credit check that don't show up on the list given to you, then you know you should check those addresses out first; this might help you rule out a person without paying for twenty different criminal records checks.

If you can't get a credit check, your best bet is to just ask the person where he or she has lived in the past.

What about using online services?

The easiest way to run a background check on anyone is to use an online service, for which you'll pay around twenty-five dollars per state checked. However, it is possible to run the same checks yourself by being aware that databases exist out there for them.

Tell me about the Sex Offender Registry.

If your subject is a sex offender and has registered as required by law (most of them do because of the serious legal consequences of not registering), he or she will show up on local and national databases.

There are websites available to help determine where sex offenders may live. By entering an address on this site, you can pull up registered sex offenders in the area of that address, and get a graphic representation of where sex offenders in that area live. It's a limited tool, as not all sex offenders register as they're supposed to, and not all sex offenders are caught; however, it's a great way to screen out at least a few, and assure yourself that the cute new guy down the block is probably okay.

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