Features - Navigating the Maze of Criminal Records Retrieval

Lynn Peterson is president of PFC Information Services, Inc., a public records research firm located in Oakland, California. Lynn has been quoted on public records research in a variety of sources including The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, and The Information Broker's Handbook. PFC Information Services provides public records research for law firms, corporations, lenders, venture capitalists, employers, the media, and other information research firms.

(Archived April 15, 1998)

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A check of criminal records is standard procedure when due diligence research is conducted on individuals. However, even in this age of instant access to digitalized information, old fashioned "gum shoe" techniques usually must be relied upon for the research of criminal records. This article will discuss how criminal records are maintained and the alternatives available for retrieval.


The Mythical Nationwide Criminal Records Check

There is no such thing as a national criminal records check.  There is one "nationwide" criminal database, the FBI database, which is known as the NCIC (National Crime Information Center).  The FBI database is NOT public record and cannot be legally accessed by anyone other than criminal justice agencies.  There are strict penalties for unauthorized access to this data, and there are penalties for buying information that is illegally obtained.  In spite of the fact that unauthorized access to NCIC is illegal, there is an enormous black market for this information.   The information is often obtained by individuals who were formerly in law enforcement and who have a "good old boy" network of associates who have access to NCIC.  And, even if FBI records were available as public record, it would not be possible to obtain a true nationwide criminal search without submitting a fingerprint card, as Interstate Identification Index (the non-fingerprint NCIC database) only receives data from twenty-two states.

There are thousands of separate criminal indexes maintained at the county, parish, township, and city levels throughout the United States.  To conduct a nationwide search would require accessing each individual index.  Obviously, this would be difficult, time consuming, and prohibitively expensive. While there are numerous investigative firms advertising that they provide "Comprehensive Nationwide Criminal Records," it is obvious that what they are advertising is too good to be true.


Statewide Criminal Checks

It is possible to search statewide for criminal records in 27 states.  From a practical perspective, a county level check may be a better option even though a particular state may have a publicly available statewide index, as it may take weeks or months to receive the information. Also, the statewide criminal index in some states (like Massachusetts) may be so limited as to be of little value.

The states in which it is possible to obtain a statewide search within about a week include: Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington.  However, some of these states may require a signed release, and may not provide a complete history of felonies and misdemeanors.


County Level Criminal Checks

Checking criminal court records at the county level is the method used in most parts of the country.  In some locations felony and misdemeanor records are maintained in a combined index.  However, there are many parts of the country in which felonies and misdemeanor records must be checked separately. The BRB Publications' Sourcebook of County Court Records provides detailed descriptions of each jurisdiction, which can be extremely helpful in determining which court or courts should be checked for felonies and misdemeanors.


US District Courts

Many of the US District Courts provide access to criminal cases via PACER, the online federal court docket system.  However, the inclusion dates available at many of the courts are limited, i.e., the records may only go back a few years.  Also, the online dockets do not contain identifying information regarding defendants, so additional research is required.


How Records Are Recorded

How records are maintained at the federal, state and county level has been discussed.  It is also important to understand how the records are recorded.  It is not possible to "plug in" someone's Social Security number into a criminal records database and find all the criminal convictions pertaining to that individual.  Criminal records are indexed by the name of the defendant. Therefore, getting the correct spelling of the name is critical to obtaining accurate results. If the person had a former name, that name should also be checked. In those jurisdictions where the clerk of court will be performing the research, a full date of birth is usually required.

While the majority of jurisdictions have computerized their criminal records, most do not allow off-site access.  Therefore, a researcher must be physically dispatched to the courthouse to search the public access terminals.  Many courts do not even offer public access terminals, as they have not developed systems that separate public records data from non-public records.  Therefore, the researcher may have to submit the request to the clerk and return in a day or two for the results. Alternatively, the court may provide access to its criminal docket index (often in books or microfiche) but the index usually contains nothing more than dates, case numbers and names of defendants. If the subject has a common name many records will be found for that name that have nothing to do with the subject.  Therefore, all case files found on the index with the same name must be examined for a match to date of birth, and sometimes Social Security number or driver's license number.  It will also be necessary to examine the case file and to determine the charges and the disposition.

The large online public records vendors provide online access to criminal court records in some jurisdictions in California, Arizona and Texas.  However, in many locations the only information available is name of defendant, case number, and date.  Penal code violations may or may not be listed, and disposition is rarely included.  Therefore, if a record is found a court runner will still have to be sent to the courthouse to find out whether the record is relevant to the subject and the disposition.  Therefore, the criminal court records searches available via most online commercial public records vendors should be regarded only as a tool to rule out the existence of a criminal record.


How to Obtain the Information

In the majority of jurisdictions, a human being must be injected into the process in order to research criminal records.  Many of the large public records vendors offer on-site court searches that enable the user to request the search online and to retrieve the results online when the results become available, usually within two to ten business days.  However, this is the least cost effective way to obtain the information.  The large vendors contract with large outside firms, who also subcontract the research to smaller outside firms.  With each step the cost is marked up as much as 100%.  In addition, when this type of research is requested via one of the large online vendors the quality of research can be inferior.  There is little accountability or quality control when you are three or four steps removed from the person who will actually go to the courthouse. Also, the information will not be returned for several days after the research is conducted, as the results must work their way back through the "information food chain" before they are finally retrieved by the user.

Some courts will perform a free check over the phone.  However, the information should not be relied upon, as the clerk answering the phone may or may not provide correct or complete information.  In many locations it is also possible to send a written request to the court.  However, it can sometimes take weeks or even months to get the results back.

The best way to obtain the information as quickly and inexpensively as possible is to develop a network of runners in locations where research is required on a regular basis.  In the absence of a network of court runners and for expediency, when multiple locations are to be searched, the research can be outsourced to a public records research firm.  Public records research firms usually have their own networks of skilled runners who they rely upon.  Good public records research firms can be found at the AIIP website (Association of Independent Information Professionals) at www.aiip.org/ or via the online Burwell Directory at www.burwellinc.com.

While the online availability of personal information, including criminal records, has been widely reported, the reality is that most public records, particularly criminal court records, must be researched the traditional way-by sending someone to the courthouse.  And, it is probable that the digitalization of criminal court records will lag behind the automation of other public records, due to concerns about personal privacy. Many courts that previously sold their records via monthly tapes have stopped doing so, because of these concerns. However, with a professional public records research firm and/or a skilled network and the advent of email and fax machines, criminal records checks can usually be conducted within just a few days.

The US Department of Justice conducted a survey of prison inmates in 1991.  They found that crimes were usually committed near the criminals' homes and that 43% of inmates were in prison for crimes committed in their own neighborhoods.  If the subject is a criminal it is likely that a record will be uncovered when all jurisdictions where he or she has lived are checked.  However, crimes committed in another county or state will probably not be found. Arcane and fragmented record keeping systems can make criminal searches seem like navigating through a maze. Nevertheless, when due diligence is required in researching the background of an individual a criminal records check is integral to development of a comprehensive profile.