Instant Access to State, County and Municipal Public Records
What is a Criminal Record?
A criminal record, also known as a rap sheet, is the collection of documents that show all the times a person has interacted with the Criminal Justice System. The content of a criminal record is chronological, and includes descriptions of the individual's earliest offense to the latest offense. Criminal records will include information on the arrest of the individual, the circumstances leading to the arrest, information on the individual arrested, their trial, the outcome of the trial should it result in a guilty verdict, incarceration, probation, parole information and more.
Information on criminal records through each of the 50 states and Washington DC can be found here:
The content of a criminal record differs according to the jurisdiction. Each state and municipality adopts its policy for creating and storing criminal records per its criminal justice system. The following reports and information can typically be found in a criminal record that has not been expunged or sealed or ones that have not been pardoned by a government official.
- Personal information like name, aliases, and birthdate
- Address and contact information
- Mugshot & fingerprint
- Physical description, including height, weight, eye and hair color, and race
- Physical identifiers like tattoos, body marks, and piercings
- Arrest records, arrest warrants, and other information on the arrest
- Background information on the alleged or convicted crime
- Trial information, including conviction, sentencing, and parole/probation information
- Inmate information, including the location and security of the detention facility, entry date, bail/bond information, and expected release date
Are Criminal Records Public?
Yes. Criminal records are presumed open to the public under the Freedom Of Information Act and State Public Record Laws. Members of the public may get the documents in this record from the record custodian without prior authorization. However, note that the record custodian varies with the jurisdiction. Many states designate the state primary law enforcement agency as the record custodian. Others integrate criminal record search with court case search and assign the clerk of courts as the record custodian for criminal records.
How Do I Obtain Criminal Records?
Interested persons who wish to look up criminal records have two options. The first is submitting an official request to the record custodian. Most record custodians have record request protocols that allow public requesters to make in-person visits, send mail requests, or conduct an online search for the criminal records of interest. Of these three means, online search is the fastest. However, in-person and mail requests for criminal records are characteristically slow. The other alternative is to use independent, third-party search services for on-demand access to criminal records. Free public criminal record checks are possible too. However, the information obtained is typically limited or incomplete.
What is an Arrest Record?
An arrest record, or arrest report, are the documents generated when law enforcement officers take an individual into custody. Generally, law enforcement will take a person into custody when the individual has an arrest warrant for a suspected crime. Law enforcement officers can make arrests without warrants if there is probable cause to take the individual into custody. In any case, the arresting officer must create an arrest report describing the circumstances surrounding the arrest. The arrest report will also contain information on the outcome of the arrest, such as court arraignment. An arrest record can be a stand-alone document or part of a person's criminal record.
Arrest records are one piece of the police records that are compiled by law enforcement. Although arrest records include police records, police records are not included in arrest records. Police records include police reports, police logs, and incident reports.
An arrest record alone cannot be used as a criminal record. This is because people arrested are not necessarily found guilty of their alleged crimes. Despite this, they may be arrested and imprisoned, meaning that both arrest records and inmate records can exist for a person eventually found not guilty. Generally, the arresting agency is the primary custodian for arrest records. In most cases, this is the police department or the sheriff's office. Either way, arrest records are considered public records and are available upon request.
Are Arrest Records Free?
Truly free arrest records do not typically exist, though many arrest records are inexpensive. Costs such as copying fees, certification fees, and authentication fees may apply to an arrest search. While some public records are free, such as census data, property information, and judgements, many can be difficult to find without the aid of government services or third party public record search websites.
Are Arrest Records Public?
Yes. Public access to arrest records is a right in most states. However, the information could be limited based on court rules. For example, arrest records that are part of an ongoing investigation may be kept private if the court decides that the record could compromise individual privacy. While the record may not be available for viewing, members of the public maintain the right to request arrest information.
How Do I Obtain Public Arrest Records?
The Freedom of Information Act and State Public Record Laws permit members of the public to look up public arrest records and even obtain a copy of the records. Most states make it possible for interested parties to obtain free arrest records on the arresting agency's website or the judiciary's website. Accessing the information on these official websites is typically free. However, the information is not always comprehensive enough to convey the circumstances surrounding the arrest.
Suppose a public requester cannot access free arrest records from these official websites. The interested requester must make an in-person visit to the physical offices of these record custodians or send a mail request. Arrest records from official record custodians are typically inexpensive. The requester need only pay a nominal fee to copy, certify, or authenticate the arrest record.
What is an Arrest Warrant?
An arrest warrant is a document signed by an authorized official of the state judiciary permitting the arrest of a named person. Generally, state laws prevent law enforcement officers from making forced entry to a residence or private property without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. A warrant makes an exception to this rule. The document permits law enforcement agents to arrest a person at a certain time of day and in a certain place, even if it means entering private property without suspicion of wrongdoing.
Although the content of arrest warrants vary with jurisdiction, a typical arrest warrant contains the following information:
- A description of the alleged crime
- Restrictions on how and when the arresting agency may execute the warrant
- The estimated bail amount following the arrest, if applicable
Some states possess a central database for members of the public to perform a warrant search. In case the state does not, interested parties can perform an active warrant search through the DEA Fugitive Search tool or the U.S. Marshall's Warrant Information System. It may also be possible to find this information from the local sheriff’s office in the county where the arrest warrant was issued.
What is a Bench Warrant?
A bench warrant is a court order that a judge issues for the arrest of a person who failed to appear in court. Defendants that are due to appear at trial must attend on the said date and time. Failure to do so without prior authorization will cause the presiding judge to deem the absent defendant in contempt of the court.
In executing bench warrants, the police can forcibly bring a suspected criminal to trial. Given the circumstances surrounding issuing a bench warrant, the suspected person is not eligible for release on bail or bond.
What's the Difference Between a Misdemeanor vs. Felony?
The definition varies with jurisdiction, but in most states, a felony is a crime that carries a sentence of more than one year in jail. Colloquially known as true crimes, most jurisdictions consider felony offenses as the most serious of offenses. Thus, persons convicted of felony charges typically serve a sentence in a correctional facility under the supervision of the state department of corrections or the Federal Bureau of Prisons if the felony is a federal crime. The security level at these facilities is high, given the nature of the crime and the offender. Besides jail time, non-sentencing alternatives for felonies are typically punitive, and the conditions for parole upon release are strict. Common felonies include:
- Murder in the first degree
- Human trafficking
- Multiple DUI or aggravated DWI, or drunk driving
Compared to felonies, misdemeanors are less serious crimes. In most states, misdemeanors are offenses punishable with less than one year in a county or municipal jail. If the offense is not serious enough for imprisonment, the court will impose sentencing alternatives like fines and probation.
In cases where the offense mandates jail time, the offender will serve time at lower security facilities at a county level rather than state facilities that are higher security. Some states even allow misdemeanor offenders to serve time at home under supervision. Common misdemeanors include:
- Disturbing the peace
- Petty Theft
- Offenses related to drinking and driving, such as OWI, DUI, and DWI
- Public nuisance
- Simple assault
- Traffic violations
What is the Sex Offender Registry?
The sex offender registry is a public database of individuals convicted of sex crimes in the United States. Per Megan's Law, every person convicted of a sex crime must register as a sex offender for a specified period depending on the severity of the crime. In turn, municipalities and states must maintain a searchable database of sex offenders registered or living in that jurisdiction. Likewise, the Department of Justice maintains a national sex offender registry.
Any member of the public may search an official sex offender registry for information on a suspected or convicted sex offender. A person may use information obtained from the sex offender registry to satisfy personal curiosity or protect loved ones. However, states have laws that caution against using the information obtained from the registry to harass, blackmail, or embarrass a sex offender.
Meanwhile, Megan's Law also ensures residents receive notifications when a sex offender moves into the community. The sexual assault and murder of Megan Kanka of Mercer County, New Jersey, made these measures necessary. Megan's attacker, Jesse Timmendequas, was a sex offender with two prior convictions of sex crimes against young children. Yet, the community was unaware of his status as a sex offender before he committed the despicable crime.
What is the Difference Between a DUI, OWI, and OUI?
DUI, OWI, and OUI are serious traffic violations that generally refer to the same offense. DUI means Driving Under Influence, OWI means Operating While Intoxicated, and OUI means Operating While Under The Influence. A common characteristic of these traffic violations is that the driver is in physical control of the motor vehicle and shows signs of impairment, as established by sobriety tests. Generally, states enact drunk driving laws that criminalize driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or any substance that can impair a driver’s physical or mental status.
States set measurable physical and chemical criteria for identifying an impaired driver. Generally, drunk driving laws empower law enforcement to conduct field sobriety tests or chemical tests that measure blood alcohol content (BAC) if an officer deems the driver impaired after a traffic stop. Usually, a BAC above 0.08 is the legal limit. Nevertheless, several states have zero tolerance for drunk driving. Thus, even with a BAC lower than 0.08, law enforcement can still charge a driver with drunk driving if an open alcohol container or a minor is in the motor vehicle.
Furthermore, the penalties for a DUI, OWI, or OUI are mostly the same. Most states suspend the driver’s license on the spot pending a court trial or administrative review by the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Besides license suspension, guilty drivers also face other penalties, depending on the circumstances surrounding the offense. The most common penalties include fines, increased insurance premiums, community service, and even jail time.
What are Inmate Records?
Inmate records are documents that contain information on offenders held in a county, state, or federal correctional facility. The Sheriff's Office or Police Department operates county jails where inmates convicted of misdemeanors serve time. The state Department of Correction operates state prisons where offenders convicted of felonies serve time. Persons convicted of federal crimes spend time in federal prisons maintained by the Federal Bureau of Prison. Administrative staff at these facilities are custodians of inmate records and jail records and often provide inmate search tools for interested parties.
Parties can also obtain public inmate records per the state's Public Records Law or the Federal Freedom of Information Act. These agencies maintain online databases of inmate records. The information in an inmate record differs with the level of jurisdiction. Nevertheless, requesters can expect to see the following information in a typical inmate record:
- Inmate's full name and all known aliases
- Mugshots and fingerprints
- Physical identifiers such as tattoos, body marking, and piercings
- Physical description, including height, weight, eye color, hair color, and race
- The date of incarceration and the expected date of release
- Any "good behavior" points awarded to the inmate used to earn early release or parole
- Details of the convicted offense(s)
What is Probation and Parole?
Probation is an alternative to incarceration. Courts place convicted offenders on probation, allowing the offender to be released back into the community without going to jail. The individuals placed on probation are typically those deemed to pose minimal risk to society. Nevertheless, there are certain restrictions to the offender's behavior and activities during the probation period. Probation officers are appointed to offenders of probation to supervise and report any delinquency. In the case of a probation violation, or breach of the terms or conditions, the court may order that the individual serve the full jail term. Under certain circumstances, the court may impose fines and stricter conditions.
Probation records contain information on court-imposed conditions that a convicted offender must meet to avoid serving jail time. Although the content of probation records differs with jurisdiction and the offender, a typical probation record contains the following information:
- The offender's personal information.
- Probation conditions, such as fines, community service, education classes, and periodic reports to an assigned officer.
- Conditions that the offender must meet to maintain probation status.
- The duration of the probation.
Parole is conditional release for inmates incarcerated in the United States. The state Board of Pardons and Paroles determines an inmate's eligibility for parole and the conditions for parole if released. Once released, the parole board assigns a parole officer to each parolee to ensure that conditions are met.
Suppose a parolee breaches the parole terms and conditions, also known as a parole violation. This is considered a parole violation, and the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles can review the violation and revoke the parole privilege if necessary. Consequently, the parolee returns to prison and serves the full sentence. Conversely, suppose the violation is not serious enough for the parolee to return to prison. The parole board may then impose additional conditions, place the offender in a "sanctions facility," or provide alternatives that may keep the person from being returned to prison.
The parole board is also the custodian of parole information. Generally, parole information is available online through the board's official website. Certain states also provide access to parole information through the state department of corrections website. Parole information retrieved from these sources will describe parole conditions, including mandatory supervision, parole period, violations, and revocations of parole privileges.
What are Juvenile Court Records?
Generally, juvenile court records are sealed criminal records not available to the public. State public record laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act prevent record custodians from releasing the information contained in a juvenile criminal record to unauthorized persons.
Juvenile court records include information regarding a juvenile or minor detained or convicted of a crime. In most states, a minor refers to persons under the age of eighteen (18). However, states like Alabama and Nebraska set the age limit at nineteen (19) years. Only authorized persons may access court and criminal records regarding individuals below this age.
To further protect minors who commit a criminal offense before the legal age, most states allow individuals who were minors at the time of the offense to apply for an expungement. The court will only grant this petition if the person has met statutory and administrative conditions for granting the expungement. For example, the person must have maintained good behavior since the arrest or conviction and must not be a party to any active investigation or trial. Contrary to public knowledge, the expungement of juvenile criminal records is not always automatic. The person named on the record must submit a formal petition and show that all conditions for expungement are in order.
What Happens During a Criminal Case?
Every state adopts a rule of criminal procedure that the criminal justice system follows to establish guilt and punish an offender for a crime. Although the events in criminal cases vary with the case and jurisdiction, a typical case goes thus:
Initial Appearance: Following an arrest, law enforcement shall bring the suspect before a judge within 24 - 48 hours. The judge shall inform the individual of the charges and assign a court-appointed attorney if the individual does not have a personal attorney.
- Bond or Bail Hearing: The court conducts a bail or bond hearing for the accused's conditional and temporary release in exchange for collateral. Generally, most courts will release an accused on bail or bond unless the person committed a serious felony, deemed a flight risk, or threat to society.
Arraignment: Here, the prosecutor, or the district attorney, files formal charges against the suspect, and the court requires the individual to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. In some cases, an offender pleads nolo contendere. From here on, the case ends in a plea deal or goes to trial.
- Plea Deals: The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove a person is guilty of the criminal charges. However, suppose the evidence or other factors suggest a lengthy case or uncertainty for either party. Then, the prosecution and the defendant may negotiate a plea deal for the accused to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence or some other benefit.
Trial: If the accused pleads not guilty, and both parties cannot reach a plea deal, the case will proceed to trial. The time from arraignment to trial is usually 60 – 70 days, depending on the state. At the trial, the defense attorney and prosecution make arguments, call witnesses, and provide supporting pieces of evidence to convince the judge or the jury.
Sentencing: Following a trial, the judge or jury shall retire to consider the case and litigants' arguments. Then the judge or jury shall arrive at a verdict. If the judge or jury determines the offender is guilty of the charges, the offender faces punishment ranging from imprisonment to community service, fines, and restitution.
Appeals: An individual has the option of appeal if there is cause to believe an erroneous verdict or unfair trial. The appellate court in the state handles such appeals. In most states, this is the court of appeals. In many states, the appeal goes directly to the state Supreme Court or, in rare cases, the Supreme Court of the United States.
Designated court officials record and document the events that happen at every stage of the court trial. The documents created throughout the case make up the court record.
What are Criminal Conviction Records?
Criminal conviction records are documents that detail events leading from complaint or arrest to the formal conviction of an individual in a trial court. These records are commonly known as "arrest and conviction records" by most state criminal justice institutions. Like all public records, criminal conviction records are available from the clerk of court in the court where a judge.
Court clerks generally maintain physical copies of the criminal conviction records. Criminal conviction records can be obtained in-person or by mail request, but these means are not always convenient or fast. Thus, most record custodians also store digital copies of criminal conviction records on online databases.