Whether you need to make sure there are no surprises for your upcoming job interview, present proof of your lack of criminal record to an adoption agency or simply assuage your curiosity, gathering info on your own criminal record can be crucial. However, despite what all those TV crime shows might have you believe, there is no Manila envelope neatly labeled "Criminal Record" tucked away in a steel file cabinet somewhere for every U.S. citizen. In reality, documents pertaining to your crime-related history are a mix of public court records, police reports and more.
Free Background Checks: The Truth
If you throw a rock online, you're bound to hit commercial sites like DMV.org, BackgroundChecks.org or SearchQuarry.com, all of which advertise free background checks. Disappointingly, sites like these almost inevitably redirect you to paid online background check sites once you've entered the basic information. Paid sites, including Intelius, BeenVerified, Instant Checkmate and US Search, do provide information such as criminal history and court judgments, as well as noncriminal info from educational history to bankruptcies based on a simple name, phone number or email address search. Prices for these searches usually range from about $35 to $50 per background check.
Some states provide resources for online inmate and criminal record searches, but availability varies on a per-state basis. Searchable online databases include the criminal background check system at the Arkansas State Police website and the public criminal history search page at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension site. However, while some services are free, these background checks often come with fees, too, typically ranging from about $10 to $25 per search.
Finding Court Records and More
Similar to online criminal record searches from state law enforcement agencies, some state courts offer online record searches, depending on the specific court system. These records, though, should be used for informational purposes only because court documents – while free and public – do not serve as criminal background checks. If an online search isn't an option, records are always available at your local courthouse.
You can also request copies of your own arrest records and other personal documents pertaining to local, state, federal and international law enforcement via the Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. You'll have to request this info the old-fashioned way with copies of your proof of identity, a set of ink roll fingerprints and a check or money order for the processing fee as shown at FBI.gov.
Mail your request to: FBI CJIS Division, Attn: SCU, Mod. D-2, 1000 Custer Hollow Road, Clarksburg, West Virginia 26306
Searching for Sex Offender Records
In the specific case of sex-related criminal offenses, you can perform a quick, easy and free search of the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website from the U.S. Department of Justice at NSOPW.gov, which allows you to search for offenders convicted of sexually violent crimes against adults or children by name or location.
Read More: How to Search for Free Criminal Records by State
Your Local Police Department
If you're in need of thorough, reliable and legitimate criminal records for yourself, heading down to your local police department is still your best bet. Once you're there with valid ID in-hand, request a search of local and state criminal records – many departments require you to appear personally to attain documents or to conduct a search. If you have no criminal history and need proof of your clean record, which sometimes is a requirement for traveling abroad, you can also request a document confirming that you have no criminal record.
"Free" background check sites probably won't provide the results you want, but online and offline alternatives can help you dive in to your personal criminal background.
- Travel.State.Gov: Criminal Records Checks
- Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children: Statewide Criminal Background Check Resources
- Arkansas State Police: Criminal Background Check System
- USA Today: How to Do a Free Background Check Online
- National Center for State Courts: Online Court Records Are No the Same as Criminal Background Checks
- You should check your public records at least once per year to make sure that all of the information it contains is accurate.
- You can also use this tool to check potential employees. If you are going to hire a new nanny, wouldn't you like to know if she's been arrested in the past?
- Sometimes even minor offenses, such as speeding tickets are noted in theses records, so it's important to keep in mind that appearing in the public records does not guarantee that someone is a criminal.
As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.