A criminal record is a summary of an individual’s arrests, convictions, and other interactions with law enforcement agencies. In addition, personal information is featured on a criminal record, as well, and may include an individual’s age, race, height, weight, eye and hair color, fingerprints, social security number, and more.
Except in rare cases of exemption, criminal records are public records and can be accessed by the general public by request to a law enforcement agency, or through an online criminal background check service. There is no single format or repository for criminal records, and differing forms of an individual’s criminal record may be stored by federal, state, county, and local agencies.
Criminal records are widely available due to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1967, which granted the public access to records from any federal agency upon request unless a record qualifies for a special exemption. Although the FOIA only applies to federal agencies, most states passed similar laws freeing up records held at the state and county levels, making them public information, as well.
Sources: NCSL, FBI, Demography study, EJI
There is no standardized format for a criminal record in the United States, and the information included may vary depending on the agency holding the record and an individual’s criminal history. However, a criminal record will commonly feature:
Generally, offenses are classified into three main categories:
These types of criminal records vary mainly in the class of offenses they report. State and county criminal records list many types of offenses, including those as minor as traffic violations, while federal criminal records list more serious crimes that violate federal law, including kidnapping, identity theft, and child pornography.
However, crimes listed on a federal criminal record may be drawn from those listed on a state or local criminal record.
Criminal records are not stored in one place, but rather in computer databases by government agencies at the federal, state and county levels. Additionally, local police departments and sheriffs’ offices often keep their own databases of criminal records, as well.
At the federal level, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is the main repository of criminal records and includes criminal history information reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, much of the information stored with the NCIC is not made available to the general public due to special exemptions.
All 50 states have repositories of criminal history information, much of which is contributed by local and county law enforcement agencies.
Finally, county law enforcement agencies, local police departments, municipal courts, and sheriffs’ offices usually have their own databases of criminal records.
Generally, criminal records are public information and can be accessed by anyone who makes a request to view them.
However, there are special exemptions, such as in the case of an open investigation, when the information in a criminal record poses a danger to the general public, or if the individual is a juvenile. Convictions on a criminal record may be “sealed” in court, meaning they still exist in the database, but can not be accessed by the public.
The best way to view a criminal record is to make a formal request to a government agency. The first places to approach are a local county clerk’s office or police department, but individuals may also make a request to view records held by a state repository of criminal records, or federal agencies such as the FBI and DOJ.
In nearly all instances, an individual must fill out a formal, signed application, and pay an administration fee.
There are many criminal background check services on the web that offer to search federal, state, and local databases on an individual’s behalf and deliver the results in one place. However, most charge a fee and require a person to input their credit card information.
An individual may ask a judge to seal, or expunge, a conviction or arrest on one’s criminal record under certain circumstances. These include if the individual was a juvenile at the time of the offense, it was the first offense the individual committed, or if the offense was a relatively minor one.
The laws pertaining to sealing or expunging offenses on a criminal record vary significantly between jurisdictions and can be quite complicated, necessitating the help of an attorney or other law professional. Only a fraction of requests for expungement are granted.
Most statewide repositories of criminal history information offer an official means of challenging charges on a criminal background check if the information appears inaccurate or incorrect.
The process requires filling out a form, detailing why the individual believes the information to be incorrect, and paying an administration fee. Obtaining the initial police report regarding the offense or final court disposition via request is crucial, as these documents can serve as important evidence in making one’s case to amend the criminal record.