To find out if a person has a criminal record, you need to understand court jurisdictions and some basic public record search strategies. Although the increasing availability of criminal records in digitised form has made it easier to locate criminal records---especially online---there is no standard procedure used for collecting, analysing and updating this information. In order to perform a thorough search for a person's criminal record, you may need to search online and at the courthouse.
- Skill level:
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Things you need
- Person's full name
- Date of birth
- Social Security number
- 10-year address history
Gather as much identifying information as you can on the person you are seeking a criminal record history, such as full name, 10-year address history, date of birth, and Social Security number. Several companies, such as Experian and Merlin Information Services, offer address tracing services that can provide this information.
Review the address trace history to determine the court jurisdictions--i.e., the states and counties--where the person has lived for the last 10 years, since any crime committed by the person will most likely have been prosecuted in these jurisdictions.
Locate the office for the top state law enforcement agency for all states you identified in Step 2. In some states, you can access a person's statewide criminal history with this agency. For example, Montana makes criminal history information available through the Department of Justice. In Oklahoma, you can access similar information through the State Bureau of Investigations. A record request can often be done online, or you can submit the request by mail.
Locate the county court office for all counties you identified in Step 2 where there is no state agency that provides a statewide search of a person's criminal record history. Begin by reviewing the county court's website to determine if criminal records are available online, such as with the Ventura County Superior Court in California. Use the person's identifying information to locate any criminal records. If criminal records are not available online, you will have to go in person to the courthouse to search for these records, which are maintained in the clerk's office.
Locate the U.S. District Court jurisdiction for all addresses you found in Step 1 using the U.S. Courts locator available online. You will need this information to find any federal criminal records for your search subject. Once you have identified the district court jurisdictions, use the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) maintained by the federal courts, which has a searchable database of all federal criminal case records.
Tips and warnings
- Avoid any online commercial public records aggregator that states, either explicitly or implicitly, that it can perform a nationwide search of all criminal records. No such publicly accessible database exists. Only law enforcement agencies have access to such a database, which is maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice.
- If you are searching for criminal records as part of a pre-employment screening process, be aware that there are federal and state laws that prohibit the use of certain criminal records for this purpose, such as in California where records of arrests or indictments that do not result in a criminal conviction cannot be considered.
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