Criminal Records Defined
Simply, a criminal record―or rap sheet― is a record of a person's criminal history, i.e. the crimes a person has committed. Often, a criminal record is a compilation of local, state, and federal criminal information on a person.
Criminal records can include every detail of a person's criminal past including everything from misdemeanors and felonies to pending charges and even acquitted charges. Often this depends on geographic location and the agency responsible for the record.
Generally, criminal records don't include expunged convictions.
Using Criminal Records
From the DMV to the United States military, various agencies and organizations request criminal records for many reasons. Mostly, the documents are used as one facet of a more comprehensive background check, which may be required in situations such as:
- Certain job applications—especially government or sensitive work.*
- Applying to immigrate to a new country.
- School admittance.
- Obtaining a security clearance.
- Military service.
- Buying a firearm.
- Fostering or adopting children or animals.
- Applying for a visa or passport.
- Certain types of licensing, such as applying for a CDL.
- Applying for some financial loans, especially mortgages.
- Law enforcement purposes, such as compiling possible suspects for a criminal investigation.
- Voter registration. (Not every state allows residents with felonies to vote.)
Even if a criminal history report is not mandated in one of these situations, it may be a good idea to have one, to help you prepare for any questions that may arise about your past during the process.
* NOTE: In the case of job applications, it is required by law for a potential employer to inform you that they will be conducting a background check and to obtain your permission before doing so.
Accessing Criminal Records
Unlike public records (and to the relief of some folks), criminal records aren't accessible to just anybody.
So, who exactly can access your criminal record?
Generally, government agencies like law enforcement and justice departments, the military, and sometimes even the DMV can access a person's criminal record with no problem.
Certain voluntary actions might require them to ask for your consent; overall, though, authorized personnel can access your criminal record.
National Driver Registry
Although it's probably not the first thing you think of when you think of your criminal record, your driving habits are subject to criminal recording, too.
Thanks to the National Driver Register, anyone (yes, anyone) can access your driver license status and any serious driving-related incidents in which you've been involved (think driving while impaired and reckless driving).
Along with the general public, any DMV in the nation can access this registry to find out if your current driver license is suspended or revoked or if you're considered a “problem driver," and deny you a license based on the findings.
People, agencies, and organizations who are in no way affiliated with the government or law enforcement cannot access your criminal record without your consent.
Such situations include:
- Potential employers, especially those that deal with law enforcement; working with children, the elderly, or the mentally disabled; and driving jobs.
- Private (and sometimes public) schools, colleges, or universities.
- Purchasing a gun from a firearms dealer.
You can refuse consent, but in most cases your refusal is a red flag or deal breaker.
This is where it gets a little tricky.
Some criminal records are available to the general public; others aren't. Often, this boils down to the specific record. For example, some states allow the general public to access another person's criminal record but not that person's background check.
Differentiating between a state's “criminal records" and “background checks" can get confusing, but you can keep things fairly straight by remembering that criminal records usually are much more thorough than background checks.
So, think of it this way:
- A background check might tell you a person is divorced, once filed bankruptcy, and used to live on a particular street. Depending on how thorough it is, it might also show if the person is a felon or was arrested for drunk driving.
- A criminal record check will tell you about tattoos and other identifying marks; specific arrests and convictions; and probation and prison sentences.
NOTE: Some states, employers, and other entities use these terms―criminal record check and background check―interchangeably. Get specific details before consenting to a check.
A person's sex crimes history is an exception.
Each state in the U.S. employs a sex crimes or sex offender registry. In most states, accessing these registries is as easy as checking for the person's name on the state sex offender website.
However, states have their own regulations when it comes to who's on the public sex offender registry (i.e. the public access website) and who's not, based on the crime classification. So, depending on the state, the information you find might be limited.
You probably already know if you've committed crimes in the past, but in case you're curious about what's actually on there―or a potential employer requires you to provide an official copy of your history―you can request your own criminal record.
How to Request Criminal Records
You, or any agency with permission or a legal right, can access your criminal record on a local, state, or federal level.
You can check with:
- Your county sheriff's department or court clerk's office. (Generally, this only works for crimes committed in that county.)
- State government offices including the Department of Public Safety, State Police Department, and State Bureau of Investigation.
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Typically, these are much broader criminal histories and require fingerprints.
If you're not sure where to start, try the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) website. Click on the Find page, search “criminal records" (put your state in there for better results), and check out the government pages provided in the results.
NOTE: Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders can get quick criminal and background information pertaining to a potential buyer's eligibility using the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Ordering Criminal Records Online
Numerous third-party companies advertise buying criminal records online.
Keep in mind these companies can only provide the kind of information allowed by state and federal law. So, while you might get some information about the person's background or criminal history, it might not be everything.