Criminal Records

Today's technology makes it easy to find a wealth of information about people; however, gaining access to a reliable (or even official) criminal record or criminal background check isn't always as easy as using a search engine.

Criminal Records Defined

A criminal record—or “rap sheet"—is a record of a person's criminal history. Often, the criminal record includes a compilation of local, state, and federal criminal information.

Aside from criminal history information, the record also includes the person's:

  • Name and known aliases.
  • Date of birth.
  • Address.
  • Photograph.
  • Fingerprints.

Depending on geographic location and the law enforcement or other government agency responsible for the record, a criminal record can include more than just misdemeanor or felony convictions.

Other items on a criminal record may include:

  • Past arrests.
  • Warrants.
  • Current pending charges.
  • Dismissed charges.
  • Acquitted charges.

However, criminal records typically don't include expunged records.

Using Criminal Records

Many agencies and organizations request criminal records or run background checks for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Employment.
    • Some businesses are required to run background checks on prospective employees, including:
      • Government agencies.
      • Medical professionals.
      • Companies or organizations where workers handle large amounts of money.
    • Usually, privately owned businesses can use their own discretion when deciding whether to run a background check.
  • School admittance.
    • Most commonly, colleges for law and medical professions check an applicant's criminal record.
  • Property rental.
  • Military service.
  • Security clearance.
  • Purchasing firearms.
    • Under federal law, felons can't purchase or own firearms; however, depending on the situation, some felons can apply to have their gun rights restored.
  • Adopting or fostering children.
  • Certain types of licenses, such as applying for a CDL.
  • Voter registration.
    • Not all states allow residents with felonies to vote; however, some states restore voting privileges after the person has met all penalty requirements (i.e. jail time, parole, or probation).
  • Purposes related to visas, immigration, naturalization, and international travel.
  • Law enforcement purposes, such as compiling possible suspects for a criminal investigation.

As you can see, a criminal record can affect many areas of everyday life, but understand that having a criminal record doesn't automatically disqualify you from things you need (for example, having a criminal record doesn't mean you can't go to college at all).

The best way to determine how your criminal record will affect a certain aspect of your life is to speak with a criminal attorney (preferably one local to your area) or someone directly related to the event (such as a military recruiter).

Accessing Your Criminal History

Generally, when a person is convicted of a crime, it becomes public record; in fact, sometimes searching a person's criminal history is as easy as visiting the courthouse or checking another public database. This is often the case for people who are looking into their own criminal records.

However, depending on someone's situation and just how deeply you want to search a person's criminal record, you might have to officially request access—and, depending on who you are and your purposes, you could be denied access altogether.

Government Agencies

Most government agencies have no problem accessing someone's criminal record; however, regarding voluntary situations, the agency might require your consent.

Non-Government Agencies

Most often, you must give your consent for any person, agency, or organization not affiliated with the government or law enforcement to access your criminal record related to certain eligibility purposes.

For example, background checks are required to purchase firearms, but a firearms dealer can't access your criminal record if you aren't trying to purchase a gun. Similarly, some schools, colleges, and universities require background checks for admittance; however, staff members can't search your record without your permission.

Of course, refusing to grant access is a red flag, and often a deal breaker.

General Public

Again, some criminal records are considered public records; others aren't.

Generally, this relates to the specific record. For example, some states allow the general public access to a person's criminal record, but not the person's background check.

Often, states set their own definitions for “criminal records" and “background checks," but understand that—in most cases—criminal records are more thorough.

For example:

  • A background check can tell you about a person's:
    • Current and sometimes past addresses.
    • Marital or divorced status.
    • Bankruptcy filing history.
    • Felony status or serious driving offenses (e.g., DUI).
  • A criminal record check includes information about:
    • Specific arrests, convictions, penalties (such as prison time, probation, and parole).
    • Identifying marks and traits such as:
      • Race.
      • Tattoos.
      • Hair and eye color.
      • Height and weight (depending on how up to date the record is kept).

Before you order—or agree to—one of these checks, understand that some states or other entities (such as employers) use “background check" and “criminal record check" interchangeably. Make sure you understand the specific information the check will reveal before giving your consent.

Sex Crimes

When it comes to the general public accessing certain parts of a person's criminal history, sex crimes are the exception.

This is because every state in the U.S. uses a sex crimes or sex offender registry, and generally accessing these registries is as simple as visiting the state's sex offender website and searching the person's name.

Keep in mind, though, that each state also has its own regulations regarding who appears on the public sex offender registry, and these regulations are based on the state's crime classification. For example, some states place people who have committed sex crimes into certain categories or tiers, and only the people who've been convicted of the most serious crimes appear on the public registry.

Additionally, some states require people who've been convicted of sex crimes to appear on the registry for only a certain period of time; this means if that time period has passed, you won't know if the person committed a sex crime (without a more thorough criminal background check).

Request a Criminal Record

Again, requesting a person's criminal record can get tricky, depending on who's requesting it and why.

Of course, you can request your own criminal record with no problem; however, other agencies might have to get your permission or prove their legal rights.

Setting aside all the cautions mentioned above, you may be able to request criminal records through one of the following:

  • Your county's courthouse or sheriff's department.
    • Typically, you'll be able to access only crimes committed within that county.
  • State government offices.
    • These include your state's Department of Public Safety, State Police Department, and State Bureau of Investigation.
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
    • Criminal histories provided by the FBI often are much broader than others and might require fingerprints.
    • The FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System works for Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders who need criminal and background checks for potential firearms buyers.

Also, you can search for options on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) website; however, the FOIA does state:

  • You're more likely to gain information if you have the person's consent or can prove the person is deceased.
  • You can be denied information if it's deemed disclosing the information is an invasion of the person's privacy.

Too, the FOIA employs several exemptions and exclusions, several of which deal with ongoing law enforcement investigations.

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