Criminal court records aren’t deeply hidden secrets, at least not usually. They’re a matter of public record, just as a defendant’s trial is most likely open to the public. These records should divulge the sentence received if the defendant is found guilty, and they also should reveal where the defendant has been incarcerated and the expected date of her release.
Accessing these records can be remarkably easy, but municipalities, counties and states often have their own procedures and policies regarding how these records are created and kept, what they include, and where interested parties can view them.
Online Criminal Background Searches
An online search for a defendant’s record often is the easiest option, since you can use your tablet, laptop or phone to conduct the search. But you might want to tread carefully; a search engine will most likely cough up a literal avalanche of unofficial online criminal record databases. These sites basically just do what you could do for yourself: contacting public sources and gathering the results in one place.
The sites can usually be counted on to reveal the sentence the defendant received for a particular crime – for a fee. But there’s no guarantee that these records are complete or entirely accurate. In many cases, these sites aren’t privy to defendants’ birthdates or Social Security numbers, and this can result in misreporting. Even reputable sites might require only the defendant’s name and city of residence for their search, and they’ll base results on that information alone.
If two John Does live in the same city, the results might not pertain to the individual whose record is being searched.
States Have Their Own Websites
A more logical approach for the internet-minded might be to go directly to the state’s website rather than to pay to have an online service do it. This is especially the case if the interested party has more information about the case than a criminal background search provider might be privy to.
The National Center for State Courts’ website provides links to civil and criminal case databases for all states, although this is where the consistency ends. Some states, such as New Mexico, include municipal, magistrate and district court cases. Others, like New Jersey, only provide Superior Court cases. Florida and California provide links to county websites, and still others, such as Alabama, make searchers pay for a hefty subscription – reportedly $150 as of 2020 – before they can search.
Federal court sentencing records are also available online at the United States Courts website.
Do It the Good, Old-Fashioned Way
Perhaps the most foolproof option is to request the information directly from the court in question. If you want to find out about sentencing, you most likely know the court where the proceedings took place, and you might even be able to find the case by docket number because you probably know that as well. Simply visit the court clerk and request a copy of the sentencing record. Remember: These are public records.
Local law enforcement agencies might have access to these records as well. If nothing else, they should be able to tell you where to locate them.
When Records Aren’t Available
Not all criminal sentencing records are available, however. Expunged records are effectively removed from the system when a convicted individual successfully petitions the court to have his criminal record erased and when state law provides this option for the crime in question. The same goes when a convicted individual is later pardoned by a government entity. The records are sealed and become unavailable from that point on.
The records of juvenile offenders are often sealed by the court as well, so they won’t be available. Courts can seal records for other reasons, too, such as cases in which the sentence was imposed on a first-time offender, the crime was not considered serious, and the defendant successfully completed the terms of sentencing. Only the defendant can gain access to the records in these cases.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.