Searching Criminal Records


Searching Criminal Records

Editor’s Note: *Mike Sankey is a true pioneer the field of Public Research. He is regarded as a leading industry expert in public records, criminal record access, state DMV policies and procedures, as well as knowing who’s who in the commercial arena of public information vendors. The following article comes from his book, [The Public Record Research Tips Book]( (Click on the link if you are interested in learning more about this book.) NFCriminal records are widely used in the U.S. Nearly everyone who has applied or been hired for a job, or has applied or been issued an accredited license related to an occupation, has probably been the subject of a criminal record search.

The information trail of a criminal record starts with a criminal case tried at one the 10,000+ county, town, and municipal courts, state trial courts, or federal courts. The county, local, and state courts usually forward record information to a centralized state repository controlled by a state law enforcement agency. The centralized state repositories and the federal courts forward records to the FBI.

Criminal records also exist in other repositories. A number of states have unified court systems that collect case record data, usually statewide. Other criminal-related record sources are prison systems, sexual predator lists, federal government sanction and watch lists, and vendor databases.

There are a lot of misconceptions about searching criminal records in the U.S. These misconceptions can be traced to a lack of understanding about two key factors that affect criminal record searching–

1. Criminal Records Are Not All Created Equal.

2. Criminal Records Are Not Always Open to the Public.

This chapter examines the reasons why criminal records are not created equal, when criminal records may be incomplete or “full of holes,” the pros and cons of searching different repositories including the so-called national databases, and legal issues affecting how records are searched and reported.

How Criminal Proceedings Create Criminal Records

Criminal records have three distinct classes – felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. Felonies are the most serious offenses, usually punishable by a jail or prison sentence of one year or more and/or probation. Misdemeanors are less serious offenses; if a jail term is imposed, it is usually one year or less. Depending on the degree or severity of the offense, some offenses may be classified as a felony in one state and a misdemeanor in another state. Also, whether an offense is tried as a felony or misdemeanor could depend on how the prosecuting attorney chooses to file charges, or how a judge views the offense or the offender. Infractions are minor offenses such as traffic tickets, municipal code violations, or minor crimes such public drunkenness or disturbing the peace. None of these offenses are punishable by a jail term. Offenses that can be tried as either a felony or a misdemeanor are commonly referred to as “wobblers.”

The term disposition is frequently used when discussing or searching criminal records. A disposition is the final outcome of a criminal court case. A disposition is an important piece of information on a criminal record or record index, along with the defendant’s name, some type of personal identifier, the charge, and the case number.

Lynn Peterson, a very highly regarded professional public record searcher, has been gracious to provide this book with her Criminal Case Flowchart. This chart, shown on the following page maps the events during a “criminal proceeding” at a court. [(Chart can be found in the full article by clicking here) (files/Michael_sankey.pdf)

While the flowchart may be simplified, it does point out the four key situations when a criminal record is created or modified.

1. At a Booking (arrest record). Notice that the record is reported to the state central repository of records and then in turn to the FBI. Because the defendant is not booked, misdemeanor citations frequently are not reported to the state repository. If the case is from a federal court, the information is not reported to a state agency.

2. At Filing of Charges with Court. Misdemeanor citation records may get picked up here. The court docket index begins.

3. At the Disposition and Sentencing connection. Notice that at the sentencing the case is again reported to the state and forwarded to the FBI. Also notice on the chart the dotted line from the Dismissed box to May Go to State and FBI box. A dismissal is not always automatically reported to the state (and FBI). Courts sometimes neglect to forward information regarding convictions to the state repository. More about this later.

4. At the Incarceration and Jail/Prison connection. The Jail and Prison boxes reflect secondary criminal records. The state prison records are readily available. While some sheriff departments provide online inmate locators, most do not.

[Please click here to view the article in its entirety . . .](files/Michael_sankey.pdf)

©2008 By Michael Sankey and BRB Publications, Inc.

Michael Sankey is founder and CEO of [BRB Publications, Inc.]( and Co-Director of the [Public Record Retriever Network](, the nation’s largest membership organization of professionals in the public record industry. Michael has more than 25 years of experience in research and public record access. He has authored or edited over 75 publications.

To contact Michael, please email him at or call 480-829-7475.

For more information on the content provided in this article and, or the organizations referenced, please use the following helpful links.

[BRB Publications](
[The Many Terms and Meanings of Criminal Non-Convictions](