Criminal Records

What are they exactly?

There are two popular assumptions about criminal records in the United States. The first is that it is a collection of documents that the police and courts have on a person’s criminal convictions. This assumption that only the police and courts have criminal records is incomplete. A criminal record is any record, stored on any public or private database, which contains chronological information about a person’s activity or involvement with criminal justice agencies within a jurisdiction.

To put it into perspective, while courts and law enforcement will have an individual’s criminal records, in many cases they are not the only agencies with copies of the record. State and federal criminal justice agencies may also possess an individual’s criminal records. Some federal agencies that collect criminal records include the Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Marshals Services, Immigration, Human Service Agencies, and third-party service providers that collect aggregate data from criminal justice agencies.

Meanwhile, another assumption is that only convicted offenders have criminal records. This assumption is also incomplete. Records of arrests and municipal violations, even when such activities do not result in an indictment or conviction, are part of your criminal footprint. At the state level, various government agencies and third-parties also maintain copies of these records.

What information is in criminal records?

In its broadest sense, a criminal record is a host of fragmented government information about a person’s criminal history that could include:

  • Personal information (names, aliases, date, and place of birth)
  • Fingerprints and Photographs
  • Physical description (sex, height, weight, racial group, eye color, distinguishing marks)
  • Last known address and contact information
  • Employment and Educational information
  • Any collected DNA sample 
  • Adjudication status per offense
  • Juvenile records
  • Arrest reports and warrants
  • Known criminal associates
  • Detailed charging information & offense classification
  • Cautionary codes to the record custodian/viewer
  • Local police records & incident reports of incidents

The list of the kind of information in a criminal record is not exhaustive and differs from state to state, the agency that created the record, and the individual.

How can I find my criminal record?

All criminal justice agencies maintain databases of criminal records in their possession. An agency’s custody of part or all of a criminal record depends on its role in the investigation, arrest, and adjudication of the person alleged of committing a crime. 

Typically, states allow public access to criminal records based on their public record laws or the freedom of information act. For the interested requester, the means of accessing, inspecting, or getting copies of a criminal record depends on the agency’s established protocols for record requests. 

Some agencies allow access to electronic copies of these records, while other agencies do not provide access to criminal records on public repositories. In this case, in-person visits or mail requests will be necessary. In all cases, the requester will have to provide the necessary details for identifying the record. He/she may also need to pay administrative fees incurred in the search and reproduction of the criminal record. 

Of course, the typical places to start will be the court where the case was filed and the records division of the state’s law enforcement. However, as mentioned earlier, there are several other agencies and databases where copies of the criminal record could exist. Therefore, knowledge of the agencies that have jurisdiction over a crime is an advantage to the requester. If an agency does not have custody of a criminal record, the custodian must inform the requester; record laws prohibit custodians from creating fictitious documents to fulfill a records request.