Most people don’t have any clue what goes on a criminal record, and it’s no wonder they don’t. They may never have encountered one before, except for talk of “rap” sheets on their favorite cop show. And even if a person has had firsthand experience with a criminal record– theirs or someone else’s – they still have an excellent reason for not having a complete understanding of what they contain. That’s because each state has its own set of standards about what they allow on a criminal record.
As a result, no single regulation across the country dictates what should or should not be found on a person’s criminal history.
And that can cause problems because it’s confusing. Fortunately, with a bit of digging, you can figure out what goes on a criminal record in your state (and any others) by using an easy way to find out right now.
What Does a Criminal Record and a Criminal Background Check Show?
There are several different types of background checks, and they’re used for a variety of reasons, impacting the info a background check include. There are general background checks, criminal background checks, financial background checks, FBI background checks, fingerprint background checks, level 1 and level 2 background checks, previous employment verification, and sex offender registry checks.1
Each of these is utilized in certain circumstances, depending on where you live and what the goal of the search is designed to do. Several of them may turn up similar info, and some are very different in scope.
Employers, landlords, adoption agencies, even some volunteer organizations run background checks all the time, usually including a criminal record check. Insurance companies will also be interested in your motor vehicles report (MVR report) since they want to know that you don’t have a history of DUIs. These criminal history checks will sometimes include accounts from local (county and state) and country-wide (federal and national) court records.
There are minor differences between a basic background check and a criminal history background check. A background check is a generic term relating to searching all public records for pertinent information on a person, such as
- Confirming their identity
- Previous addresses
- Looking into financial records
- Criminal activity
A criminal background, on the other hand, is only one type of record check. So, when somebody runs this type of check, they’re only looking for information on that person’s criminal conviction history and any crimes they’ve been proven guilty of committing. They aren’t concerned with the other stuff that comes along with a simple background check. Instead, its purpose is to lay out, in one place, any violations of the law that someone has committed.
The most significant difference is that a criminal check will most likely be more detailed about any brushes with the law. Keep in mind, though, that the results included will vary from state to state. Each region has its own state laws about what is made part of the public record. You can generally expect they will learn about any felonies or misdemeanor criminal convictions, and it may include:
- Outstanding arrest warrants
- Court records
- Law enforcement notes
- Any sentence that led to incarceration
- Possibly even appeals
Will a criminal check and criminal record include arrest records that did not lead to charges or convictions? Perhaps; it all depends on the state’s laws.
For example, in California, criminal records only reflect convictions, not previous arrests that resulted in no charges. It’s helpful if you know how to check if someone has a criminal record in each state, since they will all differ.
For searching national databases, the criminal check must be conducted using fingerprints, and requires the consent of the person being searched.
Do Criminal Records Show More Than a Conviction for a Crime, and Who Can Obtain Criminal Record Information?
Most states will supply much of the same information when you look up a person’s criminal record. However, there are nuances throughout the country that may or may not affect the exact information you’re hoping to find.
In addition, there’s no national standard of what’s legal for what can be reflected on a criminal record. For example, some states will list every criminal interaction an individual has had with law enforcement and the courts, including pending charges, while others will only list criminal convictions. It works like this because each location has different legal regulations.
To get a better idea about what goes on a criminal record in your state, check out this table to see what your state’s background check includes, or follow the link for your state to see how they differ.2
|Information Background Check Reports Can Include
|Offense, pending charges, acquittals, and dismissals
|Alaska Department of Public Safety Statewide Services, Records and Information – FAQs
|Criminal offenses, arrest warrants, convictions
|Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts, Public Courtconnect Website
|Indictments, arrest records, outstanding warrants, convictions, and incarcerations
|Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Department of Public Safety
|All arrests, warrants, or charges, convictions
|Misdemeanor or felony offenses, arrests, indictments, convictions
|Georgia Bureau of Investigation, FAQs, Obtaining Criminal History Record Information
|Idaho Official Government Website, Idaho State Police, Fingerprinting and Background Checks
|Indictments, arrest records, outstanding warrants, information regarding incarceration and post-conviction
|Indiana Government, State Police, Criminal History Services
|Arrests and warrants, convictions, depositions
|Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Criminal History Record Search, FAQs
|Kentucky Court of Justice, Background Checks
|Arrests, pending charges, warrants, convictions, post-convictions
|Maine Criminal History Record & Juvenile Crime Information Request Service, FAQs
|Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services, Public Information Act (PIA)
|Any warrants, charges, previous arrests
|Michigan, ICHAT, Internet Criminal History Access Tool, FAQs
|Warrants, arrest information, crime summary, conviction information
|Indictments, warrants, arrest history, convictions
|Past and present indictments, arrest records, outstanding warrants, convictions, post-conviction information
|Criminal charges and offenses, sentences, correctional facility, release date
|Arrest record, outstanding warrants, convictions
|Indictments, arrest record, warrants, convictions
|New Hampshire State Police, Our Services, Criminal Records
|New Jersey State Police, Criminal History Records Information, FAQs
|Arrest records, outstanding warrants, conviction, and post-conviction information
|New York State, Division of Criminal Justice Services
|North Carolina Judicial Branch, Court Records, Criminal Background Check
|Official Portal for North Dakota State Government, Attorney General, Criminal History Record
|Indictments, arrest records, outstanding warrants, convictions
|Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, Criminal History FAQ
|Oregon Criminal Justice Information Services, Criminal History Record Checks
|Identifying features, all indictments, arrest records, outstanding warrants, conviction, and post-conviction information
|Known criminal associates, offenses and charges, trial, incarceration details, parole eligibility, post-conviction information
|South Carolina, State Law Enforcement Division, SLED Catch
|Arrests, convictions, sentencing, case disposition
|Charges, convictions, sentencing, correctional status
|Texas Department of Public Safety, Criminal Records Services FAQs, Criminal History Records FAQs
|Criminal offenses and charges, all warrants, arrest record, convictions, dispositions
|Vermont Department of Public Safety, Vermont Crime Information Center, Criminal History Information FAQs
|All warrants, arrest history, criminal offenses, indictments, convictions
|Previous and current indictments, arrest records, outstanding warrants, convictions
|List of offenses, warrants, past and current charges
|Wisconsin Department of Justice, Background Check & Criminal History Information
|Charges, offense classification, court of trial, disposition on each charge
|Offenses and dispositions, judgment, incarceration details, conviction, and post-conviction information
Who Can Access Your Info?
Criminal records are part of public information, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anybody can easily access them. There are laws about who can access what records in your state. Government agencies have the right to access your crime record without you knowing about it. This would apply to law enforcement if you are under investigation, for example. Of course, if you end up being charged with a crime, your defense attorney will also receive a copy of your criminal record, so he can know your entire legal history and how best to approach your case.
In addition, anyone can perform a name-base check on you without your permission, if it is being used for personal information. Criminal convictions and records are public information, so if you’re wondering can someone run a background check without my permission, the answer is yes.
Employers need your consent to request a criminal background; it’s not legal for them to look into your criminal background without your express permission. Of course, you don’t have to permit them, but you should expect to be turned down for the position. Willfully hiding your past will only arouse suspicion in your prospective employer, and they won’t feel as if they can trust you. Also, some industries, such as health care and child care, require employers to check your criminal records.
Rather than trying to conceal something unsavory in your legal past, it may be best to offer full disclosure of your crimes ahead of time. It may be a risky move to tell the employer about your criminal conviction, but it’s a better option than blocking them from performing a background check on you. In fact, you need to disclose your record if you are directly asked on an employment application. However, suppose the application does not offer you the opportunity to comment on your disclosure, and you won’t have the chance to discuss it directly with the employer. In that case, you may want to attach a cover letter to your application, either explaining the circumstances of your arrest or discussing your rehabilitation.
Employers and law enforcement aren’t the only entities that have a right to access your complete criminal history. If you are wondering what will your background check show, you are also allowed to request a copy of your records. You may go about this in a few different ways, but the most direct path is through law enforcement itself. Your local police department may have some information on file about you, or you could go through the state itself or even through the FBI. But, first, you’ll have to fill out paperwork and be fingerprinted.
It’s a bright idea to run a quick background check on yourself from time to time, even if you think you know what you’ll find. When you see exactly what your report contains, it may help you anticipate any tricky questions you may have to answer about it. Also, these reports aren’t always 100% accurate. Checking in can allow you to try to correct any misinformation that may prove to be harmful down the road.
What Types of Information Does a Fingerprint Background Check Reveal?
Your fingerprints are a unique identifying feature and are a reliable way to connect all your information together. For example, when a person is convicted of a federal crime, they are fingerprinted, and their record is stored in the fingerprint database. The same is true for anyone who applies for, and receives a handgun carry permit, in states where it’s permissible.
The FBI maintains an extensive national database with all the information that comes along with each fingerprinting. It’s called the Identity History Summary Check. And times have changed! You no longer need the messy method of paper and ink because fingerprints can now be scanned digitally. But, of course, to order a fingerprint background check, the person would first need to submit their fingerprints willingly.
The FBI houses all the records that are connected with each set of fingerprints. They follow each state’s laws about records, including expunging records. If a state has wiped away the conviction, the FBI files will reflect that, too.
There may be situations where you’ll need to provide a document confirming that you have a clean record. Adoption agencies, immigration paperwork, and even some foreign travel situations require proof of a lack of a criminal history. In these instances, you could rely on fingerprint background checks to pull your clear records. Going to your local authorities is another option, however since it’s not commonly requested, they may not have a procedure in place. Therefore, submitting to an FBI records check might be the easiest way to get the verification you need.3
A fingerprint background is a way to take a deep dive into a person’s criminal record information, but it doesn’t always present the most accurate picture of that person. This is because fingerprints aren’t always entered into the system, and it’s possible that what information is there may not be the most up-to-date record. For example, if a person was found guilty of breaking the law and sent to prison at the state level, their fingerprints might not be found in the federal record right away. The state must submit the information.
Does a Background Check Reveal a Person’s Full Criminal History?
A comprehensive background check may or may not paint the complete picture of a person’s entire criminal history in the US, depending on where the person lives and what their criminal record contains.
While some states include every interaction a person has had with the law, including arrests with no charges, other states only reflect convictions from felonies and misdemeanors. There’s a wide range of possibilities, which is why it’s important to understand what goes on a criminal record in your state. There are also instances when convictions are expunged or sealed so that nobody will see them.
In most cases, states will frequently, for juvenile offenders, seal or expunge their criminal records when they become an adult. This essentially enables those people who were convicted while juveniles to start adulthood with a clean record. There’s a difference between expunging and sealing records; when a record is expunged, it essentially gets destroyed, as if it never happened. Not even an attorney or law enforcement would be able to access it. Sealing records usually means that it still exists, but nobody is allowed to see the record. Again, though, this will have different meanings in every state.
Some states allow sealed records to be accessed under very specific circumstances. Local justice department websites are an excellent resource to learn the possibilities in your state. You can also contact them by email, in most cases.
Most criminal history searches will only cover the past seven years. This is because, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, credit reporting agencies are not allowed to report any negative information about you that is older than seven years and cannot report any bankruptcy that happened over ten years ago. This seven-year rule applies to civil suits and judgments, but also arrest records. However, several states have even stricter rules about what may be excluded; for example, several states do not allow searches to include criminal convictions from more than seven years ago.
Again, though, this doesn’t apply across the board. A felony record will still come up on employment background checks. That criminal record info will still be visible unless you manage to have it expunged. The rules to expunge felony criminal record convictions also vary by each state’s law; they each have different lengths of mandatory waiting time before they will review a felony record. And federal background checks are also on your record indefinitely.
FAQs: Criminal Background Checks vs. Criminal Record Checks
Do criminal background checks include out-of-state records and federal records?
State background checks only pertain to that particular state, not the entire US. Neither will a state’s background check reflect any federal crimes. If an employer is running an employment background check on an applicant who has lived in multiple states, it would be wise to order background checks in each of those states. If they were also concerned about any federal crimes, they would also need to run a federal background check. So, one employment application could require more than one criminal record search if the employer wanted to get a complete picture.
What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?
Both felonies and misdemeanors are crimes; each one is evaluated and labeled based on how serious the crime is considered in the eyes of the law. For example, murder (a felony) is far more severe than shoplifting (a misdemeanor). Therefore, a felony will hold a much harsher legal penalty than a misdemeanor would. In fact, when people are found guilty of a misdemeanor, they may not even be sentenced to jail at all.
How can I get a copy of my criminal history online?
To do a name-based search for yourself, which requires no fingerprinting, you should first start with your state’s government website. This can direct you to your local justice department, which should have a form that you can fill out requesting a copy of your records. They may charge you a fee per page, but that’s only to cover printing and mailing costs.
Are criminal record checks available to the public for free?
This is yet another question where the answer depends on your location. For the most part, criminal records are a matter of public record, as per the national Freedom of Information Act. How easy they are to access depends on how readily available the states make these documents. In most cases, people can pay a visit to the county clerk to access the information there. If an in-person visit isn’t possible, some local municipalities make their records accessible online. Or, some websites compile public record information for users’ convenience. Some of these websites charge a fee, although you can find some that don’t. It’s important to keep in mind that free isn’t always the most reliable path when you have somebody else do the work for you.
Are criminal background checks always reliable?
Unfortunately, as with anything in this life, errors are always bound to happen. That’s why it’s crucial that you run a report on yourself every so often, just to be sure. It would be terrible if you ended up losing a job or an apartment because of incorrect information connected to your name.
But how can a mistake happen on such a vital record?
Unfortunately, any number of things can go wrong. For example, it’s possible for you to end up with information from somebody with the same or similar name as you. In addition, clerical error may cause the person filing the report to grab the wrong file inadvertently. Or perhaps the clerk has the correct file but fills out the paperwork wrong. Human error can account for many mistakes where there should be none.
How can I correct errors on my criminal record?
If you learn how to do a background check on yourself and notice that there is an error in there, there are procedures to follow to attempt to correct it. For most states, you will need to contact the Department of Justice for where you live. Most departments have a form available that you can fill out; others don’t make it as easy, and you’ll need to write a letter asking them to correct the mistake. Remember to be as clear and specific as possible about what was incorrect and what the correct information should be now that you know what goes on a criminal record in your state.