Overview of Topic
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Search Topic 11:

Criminal Record Search

Web Search Guides

by Joseph Ryan, Editor

I. Overview of Topic

Did you know that, in most countries worldwide, conducting a criminal record search is extremely difficult, if not impossible?

Trying to find out if a potential business partner, customer, supplier, or even employee has a criminal record in Canada, England, or or most EU countries means running into a thicket of privacy laws and bureaucratic stone walls.

By contrast, access to criminal records in the U.S. is relatively free and open. Here, such records are considered public information, available to anyone who wants to view them. You don't even need a business purpose (a "permissible purpose") to check somebody out. You can use free Internet resources to investigate potential dates, even suspicious neighbors. All you need is the person's name, though it can be extremely helpful if you also have their date of birth, especially if they have a common name.

Where do you go on the Internet to conduct a criminal record search? Generally, you'll want to visit either county or state government websites (more on this below). Alternatively, you can use a fee-based service to do the work for you.

Unfortunately, like with most things run by the government, there are some complications. Here are the main ones you should know about before you start trying to check out somebody to see if they've had any serious run-ins with the law --

  1. First, recognize that even in the U.S., there's just no easy way to achieve 100% certainty when researching criminal records. The only comprehensive nationwide database of criminal records in the United States is the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), maintained by the FBI. Unfortunately, it's only available to law enforcement agencies.
  2. So you have to run your checks on a regional basis - either county-wide or statewide. For example, if your "subject" (i.e., the person you're checking out), lives in Colorado, you can check that entire state's repository of criminal records for a small fee, entering the individual's name and DOB. Some other states offer the same service. Unfortunately, most don't.
  3. So in most states you have to check by county. Fortunately, virtually all counties in the U.S. make this type of information available to the public, but what a job to access it. You need, first, to know your subject's "address history," and second, to locate county criminal records sites for each county he/she has lived in. But because criminal records are so fragmented by jurisdiction in the U.S., that's usually the only way to do it with reasonable reliability. You can locate most county websites by entering the county name/state into a search engine. Then call the county courthouse and ask how best to run a criminal records search - in some counties you can do it online, in others they'll run it for you while you wait on the phone, and in a few you have to send your request in by mail. Talk about tedious. But read on, a much easier way to do all this is suggested below.
  4. Essentially, then, to check whether somebody has a criminal record in the U.S. you need to, at a minimum, access county records in your subject's county-of-residence for, say, the past seven years. That would be a very basic criminal records search -- and, of course, of questionable reliability. Obviously, for example, if your subject lives in County A now, he/she may have been convicted of a crime in County B sometime in the past. And County B could be an adjoining county, or it could be a county in some other state.
  5. Another complication is the problem of aliases. What if your subject has a rapsheet under a different name? Or what if your female subject has been convicted of a crime under her maiden name?

    So you see, it's easy to get a false sense of security by running someone's name through government criminal records databases and coming up with "No Records Found." That person may have a long rapsheet in other jurisdictions or under other names.

  6. One last, very important, complication: if you're an employer, you can't run a criminal background check on an employee or potential employee without that person's written permission. Employment-related background checks are closely regulated by state law and the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. This Act confuses everybody, even employment lawyers. Read it and weep. However, its main thrust in this area is clear enough: full disclosure whenever you run background checks on employees or potential employees, and always obtain signed releases from them.

The Easy (But Still Imperfect) Way to Search Criminal Records

So, given that conducting a criminal record search can be pretty tricky and pretty tedious, is there an easier way? Yes, you can utilize one of the fee-based services to do the work for you. They are not expensive, about $20 for a statewide search and about $45 for nationwide. Some of the better services are described below. (Note, however, if all you are interested in is whether your subject is a registered sexual offender, you can check the National Sexual Offender Public Registry for free. Of course, your subject could have a long rapsheet of nonsexual felonies and wouldn't be listed here.)

In fact, what's a little discouraging about criminal records searching is that no matter how hard you try you can never be absolutely certain your subject doesn't have a criminal record. Why not? Because all public databases of criminal records are incomplete. These databases are compiled from county data. But some counties simply don't make the information available to their state governments so it never finds its way into a database. Also, of course, your subject may have completely changed his/her identity, or for that matter, may have even committed crimes overseas.

So you use the best information available, given the purposes of your search. For some purposes, a simple countywide search may be adequate -- for example, you feel very confident your subject has no criminal record but you want or need to run a search anyway pro forma. In other cases, a statewide search encompassing all counties in your subject's state of residence may be more appropriate -- for example, you have a subject who has lived in several counties in the same state.

However, in my opinion, for most purposes your best bet is a nationwide search. These days, most people don't stay in one place very long. The average person moves once every 4 ? years. That could be a move from New Jersey to California or Alaska. So for real reliability you should run a nationwide search going back at least seven years.

One final point: Be sure to check the "Coverage" of any service you pay to do a criminal background check for you. They should have a link on their home page to "Coverage" or "Availability." This link should produce another page or a pop-up which details exactly what jurisdictions are included in their database. You may be surprised to find, for example, that not every county in California is included - and the county-of-residence of your subject is one of those not included. If that happens you should still probably run the search, but you should supplement it with an search of criminal records in that missing county. Call the county clerk there and ask how you can get a criminal records search for that county.

To sum up, checking criminal records in the U.S. is vastly easier than in most other countries, but is still a big hassle if you do it yourself. So it's usually better to hire a reputable online service to do it for you, remembering that even the most comprehensive searches they can do will not include some counties.

That's it - our ten minutes are up! (OK, maybe twelve or thirteen if you're a slow reader.) Below is a listing of Web resources to help you continue your research on the subject of criminal record search.

II. For Additional Research

This Section provides reviews and recommendations of Web sites and other online resources


E-CriminalBackgroundCheck is one of the most thorough criminal record search services you'll find online. It offers you four levels of search: county, state, national, or maximum. What's unusual is that each level includes not only a database search of criminal records but also an onsite search at the county courthouse. This is important. Databases can be incomplete or out-of-date, so a service which also includes an onsite search is providing more reliable results. At all levels of search, E-CriminalBackgroundCheck sends a researcher to your subject's county-of-residence courthouse to check criminal records in person. A simple countywide search costs $50. This provides an onsite county-of-residence search including a search for aliases. If you order their Maximum Search, you get searches of just about every public database available: an onsite county-of-residence search, state and national criminal records database searches, federal convictions, terrorist watch list searches, Interpol search, a national warrants search (in case your subject is "wanted" somewhere) and a news search (has a crime-related news article appeared about him/her?). The Maximum Search is costly ($195) but a good bet if you really want to be as sure as possible that your subject has no criminal record.

Intelius and US Search

Intelius and US Search are both large investigative companies offering criminal record searches. They're both quite reliable and serviceable if what you're after is a quick database search, either statewide or nationwide. Their pricing is reasonable, starting at about $20 for a statewide criminal background check. Of course, you do have to check Coverage (or "Availability" as Intelius calls it) to make sure their databases cover the jurisdictions you know your subject has lived in. As is well-known, most criminal activity occurs in the criminal's county-of-residence, so it's an absolute must that your search encompass this county.

Related Web Search Guides

Other Web Search Guides you might find useful:
Checking Out Lawyers
Checking Out a Business
Asset Search


III.Discussion Group


Have questions or thoughts to share regarding criminal records? Visit our Web Search Guides Discussion Group.

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