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Are Criminal Records Accessible to the Public?

Sonia Nair Aug 17, 2020
Various law enforcement agencies maintain different types of criminal records, and many of them are accessible to the public. Here is some information about such public records.
According to an NELP (National Employment Law Project) report, "the share of the U.S. population with criminal records has soared to over one in four adults".

You may face certain circumstances, wherein you require information about the criminal background of a person.
For example, employers often check the criminal background of their prospective employees. Likewise, a background check is conducted before appointing a new housemaid or a baby sitter. In some cases, people seek information about the criminal background of a suspicious neighbor or a colleague.
With the rate of crimes increasing at an alarming rate, it is always better to have a basic idea about the background of strangers, with whom you need to interact closely. A criminal background check can be conducted in different ways, and checking public records is the easiest way. Most of these records are now available online.
There are n number of websites that offer this facility, most of them may charge you for their services. Criminal record websites maintained by the law enforcement agencies of the government are accessible to the public, without any fee. The degree of accessibility may vary with the laws of the region, the nature of offenses, and various other factors.

What are Criminal Records?

Public records are those documents that are maintained by different agencies of the government, and are available for public inspection. They include records of births and deaths, properties that come under a particular jurisdiction, and marriages or divorces that take place in a particular place.
While some of these public records are maintained by courts, some others are maintained by other authorities. For example, arrest records are maintained by the police department. Public records are maintained at the local, state, and federal level.
Criminal records are public records for the criminal history of offenders. Arrest records reveal the type of offense for which an individual was arrested, they do not indicate whether the person was convicted or not. You have to search the criminal conviction records for information regarding conviction.
Some states maintain separate criminal records for felonies and misdemeanors. In some jurisdictions, the same record has details about both the offenses.
The sex offenders registry maintained in each state, can be checked for information about a person's involvement in sex crimes. Traffic offenses may not be included in criminal records, but serious ones are recorded in a separate national database.
Though criminal records are often called police records, the former can be of different types and are maintained by various law enforcement agencies, like courts, police department, correctional agencies, etc. In the United States, you may find separate records maintained by the local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.
While some of these records contain information regarding offenders in all categories, some others deal with specific crimes like sex offenses or serious crimes.
Usually, a criminal record has details like the name (including aliases) and date of birth of the offender, his/her relatives, physical description and mug shot, address, crime(s committed), fingerprint data, and dates of arrests and convictions.

Degree of Accessibility

So, criminal records are maintained by various law enforcement agencies at different levels, and the information in these records is shared between them. Most of them are accessible to the public too. However, the degree of accessibility to the public may not be the same in all jurisdictions. Some criminal records are not accessible at all.
For example, records of juvenile crimes are not usually open to the public. This is to prevent negative consequences, such as limitations on the kids' ability to enroll in higher education or in obtaining a job. If the juvenile is tried as an adult, he/she is convicted and sent to a regular jail, such a conviction will be entered into the criminal records.
Other restrictions on free access to criminal records are the provisions for sealing and expungement. Sealing is a provision that enables offenders to get their records inaccessible to the public. Expungement denotes the complete removal of an offender's records.
However, in some jurisdictions, the records are made inaccessible to the public, but are accessible to law enforcement agencies. In both cases, strict court procedures have to be followed so as to get criminal records sealed or expunged. Some states do not have such provisions. So, laws regarding these provisions may vary from state to another.

How to Access Criminal Records

In order to obtain information about the criminal background or history of a person, you need to visit the court's clerk office or the county sheriff's office. You will get the required information, if the person has committed a crime in that county.
Otherwise, approach authorities of state government offices, like the State Police Department. Even federal agencies like the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) may help you in getting such information. Hard copies of such records can be obtained by submitting the relevant form, along with the required fee.
If you are looking for an easy way, open a browser and type the name of the person along with the terms 'criminal records'. It is always preferable to try websites that are maintained by state agencies, for checking criminal records. If you find these methods confusing, open the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) website.
Click on the 'find' option and type the terms 'criminal records,' along with the name of the state or the particular law enforcement agency (like the FBI). You will get a host of government pages, which can be searched for the information you need.
You may come across various other websites that offer such information, and their services are claimed to be free. While most of them offer preliminary search results without any fee, they may charge you for further searches.
In short, public criminal records are maintained by governmental agencies, and most of them are accessible to the public. You can obtain information regarding the criminal history of an individual from these sites, without any cost. You must have a basic understanding about the laws of the state or agency, with regard to accessibility of criminal records.