You can find some criminal records without difficulty. In other instances, the process can be difficult. In other instances still, you may be unable to access the record at all.
Accessing State Records of Criminal History
When you know the state where someone's criminal trial was heard, finding the record should not be too difficult. Every state keeps a criminal history database of felonies and serious misdemeanors, although not every state provides public access. In states where you can access that criminal record, how you go about it differs from state to state.
The first step is find the database for the state in question. A good way to do this is to search the internet using the state name plus the term "criminal history database" or "criminal history name." In Texas, for example, this takes you to the Texas Department of Public Safety's Criminal History Name Search page. Once there, you'll find a succinct explanation of how to search for a criminal's record by name and how to pay for conducting it. The cost per search is $3. Convictions and deferred adjudication records – a criminal charge that has not yet been tried – remain in the Texas Department of Public Safety database indefinitely.
Many other states have similar criminal history search procedures. In Washington State, for example, the Washington State Highway Patrol keeps the database of criminal histories and offers access much like access in Texas with similarly low-cost fees.
States With Limited Access to Criminal Histories
Four states – Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland and Rhode Island – ban private searches entirely, and several states ban searches related to state employment. Other states ban some searches, but allow others, for example minor driving offenses.
In California you can't access the state record of certain criminal charges, including
- unadjudicated charges, unless the charge is currently pending trial
- convictions more than 7 years old (A marijuana possession conviction in California falls off the record after two years.)
- pardoned convictions
- arrests culminating in the person's entry into a diversion program
There are a few exceptions to California's seven-year rule for sealing records. For example, sex crimes covered under Megan's Law remain accessible indefinitely.
The California State Attorney General's guidelines, "California Department of Justice Guidelines for Access to Public Records" explains how to conduct your California search. There is a charge of 10 cents per page for copying.
In theory, anyone can search the federal database for a record of another person's federal criminal record. You can accomplish this through PACER, the federal government's Public Access to Court Electronic Records. Questions you may have about this somewhat complicated process are answered in the PACER document, "Frequently Asked Questions."
There is a charge of 10 cents per page for the search – not just for the pages you receive – so you may pay a considerable amount even though the search came up empty. Also, not all federal courts participate in the PACER program, so if you're conducting a PACER search without knowing where a criminal trial was held, you may come up with a negative result even if a federal trial actually took place.
Records of federal cases heard prior to 1999 exist only as paper records. PACER recommends that you go to the court where a pre-1999 case was heard to obtain them.
The Court of Last Resort
When searching for a criminal history without knowing where an individual's crimes may have been adjudicated or if such records even exist, you have two alternatives: The first is to apply to each state's database, one inquiry at a time, which in most cases is impractical. The second is to get help for a fee from one of the many online criminal background services. The value of these services varies because they depend on the private company's ability to compile a reliable database by picking up legal notices of convictions in a timely and accurate manner. Also, information presented as a result of this process can produce a lot of mismatches because many people have the same name.
- Texas Department of Public Safety: Frequently Asked Questions
- Texas Department of Public Safety: Criminal History Name Search
- Office of the California State Attorney General:California Department of Justice Guidelines for Access to Public Records
- Nolo: Can I Search Out Another Person's Criminal Record?
- USCOURTS.gov: Find a Case (PACER)
- PACER: Frequently Asked Questions