Adult criminal convictions are generally a matter of public record. As such, anyone who is willing to put in the necessary legwork to search court records can learn about another person’s criminal history. While there may be limitations on the release of what people generally think of as their “criminal record”-that is, the information maintained by the state or federal government which compiles all criminal charges and dispositions-information about each individual charge is available to the public as soon as a case is filed.
Many courts are making their records available on the internet today, which makes it much easier and less expensive to locate criminal convictions and other information.
In addition, private investigative agencies and related companies often compile this information and make it available for a price.
As such, information about criminal convictions is generally accessible to anyone who has the time and motivation to actively seek out that information.
What Is Included in a Criminal Record?
All criminal court activity is a matter of public record. Of course, criminal convictions are a part of the record, but there is often much more extensive information included. Once charges have been filed, an official record exists within the court system, and that record doesn’t simply disappear if charges are dismissed or the defendant is acquitted at trial. Depending on state laws and the reporting procedures of local prosecutors, charges that did not result in conviction may appear in the national database as well. That means, for instance, that a police officer checking a driver’s record during a roadside stop may well be seeing charges that resulted in acquittal as well as criminal convictions.
Official Purposes for Criminal History Databases
The federal government compiles information about many crimes in order to make that information available to state and local law enforcement agencies across the country. This information may be used by law enforcement agencies to:
- Determine appropriate charges
- Make bail recommendations
- Make sentencing recommendations or negotiate plea agreements
- Screen potential employees
- Consider the reliability and impeachability of potential informants
- Narrow a pool of possible suspects in a criminal investigation
The database system also assists in the enforcement of certain statutory restrictions. For instance, a criminal background check is necessary to determine eligibility to purchase a handgun. Certain types of criminal conviction will prevent a person from receiving a handgun permit.
Other Common Uses for Criminal History
Outside of law enforcement, the most common use of criminal histories is in determining eligibility for employment or for certain educational programs. Sometimes a prospective employer or a school-particularly those in licensed or bonded professions-will require an applicant to supply a copy of his criminal history as a part of the application process. In other cases, an employer will ask for authorization from an applicant to conduct a background check, and that background check may include both criminal history and credit information.
Accessing Your Criminal Records
Many states have agencies that will provide consumers with copies of their criminal records for a small fee. These are sometimes required for employment or school applications, but are also useful for anyone with criminal charges in his background. If there are criminal charges on your record that were later dismissed, a criminal defense lawyer may be able to get them expunged. Even convictions can sometimes be expunged. If your criminal history is limiting your options, you may be able to clean up that record.
Clearing Your Criminal Record
Most states allow for offenders to expunge, or clear, their criminal records. Although not available for all types of offenses, expungement seals records as if the arrest, conviction and sentence never occurred.
Police and courts may still be able to see the details on your criminal record, but most other parties will see no criminal history whatsoever.
Expungement is an option considered by offenders who find their criminal past is preventing them from employment, education and housing opportunities.