Estimates suggest that one out of every three Americans has a criminal record (or “rap sheet”). Criminal records contain not only conviction records but also arrest records, warrants, criminal charging documents, booking records, and more. Most of these records are created, held, and maintained by government agencies, such as courts, law enforcement, and state and federal criminal justice agency databases.
This article will primarily discuss criminal records held by government agencies and courts. But it's important to remember that criminal records can easily end up in the files of private background check organizations, on mugshot websites, and in social media and news stories—making it tough to put one's past in the past.
Multiple agencies often house criminal records. The record tends to follow the criminal justice process, starting with the criminal justice agency that created the record (usually law enforcement) and moving along to any other agency that used the record (prosecutor's office, courts, probation). Here are some examples of where criminal records can be found.
Finding your criminal records can involve a quick-and-easy Internet search or cumbersome paperwork and fees. Know that the rules for accessing and requesting records will differ between agencies.
Local, state, and federal laws typically dictate:
But the good news is: When you are the subject of the record, you should be able to view or request access to the record whether it's public or private. You just need to figure out how.
Start online first and only go to government websites. Some private companies give the appearance of being a government website by using similar web addresses and backgrounds. Typically, these websites charge a hefty price for court records that might be outdated and inaccurate. Many government websites provide free or low-cost searches—so, if the website asks for a sizable sum, you might be on a private website. Also, check for disclaimers indicating the website is not maintained by a government agency. If an Internet search doesn't work, you might need to physically visit the agency or court to search for or request the records. Let's review these options.
Start with a general keyword search—it might pinpoint which agency holds your records. If you already know which agency created the record (say the Anytown Police Department arrested you), check that agency's website. You can also check the websites of:
Other great resources include websites hosted by state law libraries, state judicial branches, and legal aid organizations. For instance, check out these guides put together by the Illinois Legal Aid Society and the North Carolina Judicial Branch.
If your Internet search doesn't pan out, contact the agency you believe is holding your record and ask about the procedure for requesting access to your files. Some agencies will not release records without a signed form or fingerprint card, which means you might have to go to the agency in person or mail the requested information. In some states, the agency or court might maintain public computer monitors where individuals can search for records for free.
Knowing what's in your criminal history record can be helpful in more ways than one. Criminal records carry numerous consequences that go beyond the criminal justice system. A criminal record you think is long gone (say that DUI from college) might creep up when you least expect or want it to. If you're applying for a loan, job, professional license, security clearance, or even as a volunteer, an organization might ask you to consent to a criminal background check. And that record you thought was in your past is staring right back at you on paper or a screen, along with a rejection or denial letter. Had you known about the record, you might have been able to try to seal or expunge it through a court procedure (more on this below) or explain its existence on your application.
Government agencies have mechanisms for correcting inaccurate records. Contact the agency holding the record to see if they provide information or forms on how to make such a request. This information might be available on the website where you found the records. To correct an inaccurate record, you might need to provide the agency with your fingerprints and other identification. Here's an example of the process for a “Record Challenge” in Colorado.
Depending on your state's laws, your criminal record could qualify for sealing or expungement. This process generally involves filing an application with and paying a filing fee to the court, but procedures vary widely by state and type of record. You'll need to consult your state's law to determine which records and offenses qualify, whether a wait period applies, and what other requirements exist. Learn more in our article: When Can I Get My Criminal Record Expunged?
To get started, check the website of the agency holding your record to see if it indicates if and how records can be sealed, expunged, vacated, or dismissed (your state might use another term). Your local or state court website might also have information. Some organizations offer expungement clinics. You might consider hiring an attorney to assist you in your efforts.
Remember that, even if you do manage to seal or expunge records, the agency or court doesn't typically erase the record because prior records can be used in future charging and sentencing decisions. But expunging or sealing records should prevent employers, landlords, and other members of the public from accessing your record. Ask a lawyer for advice on what sealing or expunging a record means in your situation.