How to Get a Copy of a Criminal Record

Although criminal records are public records, they're not always easy to obtain. The procedure for getting an abstract of a person's criminal history varies depending upon the laws of the state that holds the record, and the purpose for which you require the record.

How to Get Your Own Criminal Record

You can review your own criminal record by ordering a copy from the state, and paying the required fee. Some states may require proof of your identity before allowing you to access a copy of your record, while other states allow for more open access. In some states you may review your criminal history online, while in others you will have to order a physical copy of your criminal history abstract to be delivered by mail.

If you are required to provide a copy of your criminal record for a purpose such as a background check, employment application or professional license, you will normally be required to provide a copy of your fingerprints through an authorized agency or business. Employers will normally cover the cost of a background check, and may submit the requests for records to the relevant agencies rather than having you submit the requests yourself. When seeking a professional license, it is normally up to he applicant to submit fingerprints to all jurisdictions that may possess criminal history records and to pay the required fee, with the result of the criminal records search often returned directly to the licensing agency. The fingerprint check helps prevent a person with a criminal history under a different name or alias from avoiding the detection of that history.

Getting Somebody Else's Criminal Record

If you are an employer, and are performing a criminal history check on a prospective employee, you should obtain a signed release from the job applicant that permits you to obtain their criminal history. Many state agencies and background check companies will provide a consent form that you should use in association with their services. You may then use that release to obtain a criminal history from a private company or from the appropriate government agencies for the jurisdictions in which the applicant may have a criminal record. If you want to perform a more complete background check that includes the applicant's fingerprints, you will need to investigate and follow the procedures for a fingerprint check with the government agency that will be providing the criminal history report. You should familiarize yourself with state laws regulating employment background checks before requesting that applicants agree to a criminal records check.

When seeking criminal history information from a state agency, your request should be as specific as possible, including if available the person's legal name, prior names or known aliases, Social Security number, race, date of birth, and present and past street addresses. Many companies hire professional services to perform background checks rather than performing them in-house.

You may also seek criminal history information from a private company. Most private providers of criminal history information are defined as "reporting agencies" under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), and must obtain a release form from the person whose information is being sought before releasing a report. Unless the report is for employment in a job that will pay more than $75,000 per year, the FCRA prohibits reporting agencies from releasing arrest information that is more than seven years old. The FCRA does not impose restrictions on the disclosure of information about criminal convictions, but many states restrict disclosure of older convictions.

If a person's criminal record has been sealed or expunged, you may not be able to obtain it. The nature and extent of expungement and sealing vary significantly by jurisdiction. Sometimes, evidence of the criminal conduct will remain part of the public record or will be available under narrow circumstances, such as for purposes of a background check by a law enforcement agency or child care provider. Sometimes, even if a conviction is expunged or the court record is sealed, there may be a public arrest record associated with the event which gave rise to the prosecution, and there may also be a record of the fact that a criminal charge was filed even though its resolution is not publicly available.

Public Sources of Criminal Records

State Agencies

In most states, criminal history records are maintained by the state attorney general's office or the state police, and federal criminal histories are maintained by the FBI. However, most government agencies restrict when they will share criminal history records, and will release a copy of the record only if you're seeking your own record, you have a valid release from the person whose record you are seeking, or you have the right to request a criminal record under state law. Some jurisdictions will allow you to obtain a record of more serious offenses for somebody other than yourself, or of less serious offenses that are recent, but will require a release or additional legal authority before releasing a full criminal history.

If a person has lived in more than one state, it is necessary to separately check their criminal history for each state in which they have resided. You will only find out-of-state conviction information in a state criminal history under unusual circumstances, such as where a defendant's probation or parole was transferred to that state from the state in which the conviction occurred.

Court Records

Conviction information may also be obtained through court records, although it is necessary to separately check with each court in which a prosecution may have occurred. Some courts offer online records search features, allowing you to search for past and current cases through an online interface. A small number of states offer statewide databases of court dockets, that may turn up cases from multiple courts. When performing an online search, read the fine print about what is and is not included in the results: Some searches include only current or recently closed cases, or only go back for a few years, and thus may omit information about an older or closed case.

Checking court records at the courthouse will allow for a more complete search, but requires a trip to the courthouse and may involve a wait if the records have been archived. Some older records will no longer be available on paper, and in some cases will only be accessible in summary form following the destruction of older court files.

Private Sources of Criminal Records

A large number of companies sell access to criminal history information. These companies will typically aggregate criminal record information from multiple sources, including state records and other private databases.

Background Check Companies

Reporting agencies, background check companies that are covered by the FCRA, can be expected to require a release from the person whose background is to be investigated. Some private companies will sell a criminal record report to any person who is willing to pay their fee.

Private reports often involve algorithms that match people by name, date of birth, and perhaps Social Security number. Social Security numbers may be omitted from criminal history information due to concerns about privacy and identity theft. Particularly where Social Security Number matching is not possible, a private company's criminal history report is likely to include criminal histories of other people who have the same or a similar name and date of birth, or perhaps even as the result of a clerical error that results in a mismatch. Due to the significant likelihood that a report will include somebody else's conviction information, private criminal history reports normally include significant disclaimers about the accuracy and reliability of the information they provide.

In some situations, a private criminal history check will report a criminal charge or conviction that has been sealed or expunged by the state. Although some states require background check companies to remove conviction information following expungement, those restrictions only apply to companies that have obtained their data directly from the state. Most states do not require the removal of expunged records, although many companies will voluntarily remove that information following the submission of proof of expungement.

Mugshot Websites

In recent years a large number of websites have been created that include mugshots, along with the name of the person in the mugshot and the criminal charges that were filed. The primary purpose of these websites is to convince people named on a site to pay a fee to have their mugshots removed from the site. These sites are incomplete, and typically give no information about the disposition of the criminal case -- whether there was a dismissal, a plea bargain, or a conviction.

Additional Sources of Conviction Information

Although not offering complete conviction information, the following public sources may provide information about certain classes of offender:

  • Sex Offender Registries - Most states offer online sex offender registries, that include information about adults who are required to register with the state as sex offenders. Approximately fifteen states include some juvenile offenders on their registries. Although the amount of information will vary, registries often include an offender's photograph, name, address, physical description, and a description of the convictions that led to the offender's inclusion.

  • Department of Corrections Databases - Most state departments of correction offer online databases of prisoners and parolees, providing information about anybody who is in their custody or under their supervision. Information provided usually includes a mugshot, name, physical description, last place of incarceration, conviction charges, and information about parole eligibility or discharge dates. Some states also include information about past offenders.

  • Jail Inmate Searches - Many jails now allow people to search to see if somebody is presently incarcerated, and may provide information about criminal charges and court dates. Jails rarely offer information about offenders who have been released from custody.

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Aug 10, 2016.