Every one of the millions of arrests that take place in the U.S. each year is documented in Booking Records. These are standardized procedures that identify suspects and establish charges to be pursued in court. Booking records may remain in the public domain for many years after a charge is adjudicated and a sentence served unless they are withdrawn.
How Booking Works
If the police stop and detain you, it doesn't mean you've been arrested. It's not until you are "booked" or officially charged with a crime that an arrest is actually underway and will be recorded as such. In order to officially arrest a person, police must document many things in Booking Records, which often takes several hours.
Don't expect to hear your "Miranda Rights" immediately – arrests don't often resemble those seen on television police shows. Police are not required to notify a suspect of his right to remain silent and ability to refuse to answer questions until an arrest is made and a formal interrogation begins. This can be confusing because police detention or custody closely resembles an arrest – but the booking process is the defining factor.
Detention and Arrest
When police suspect a person of involvement in a crime, they may want to ask questions to clarify their position, such as the suspect's address, vehicle type, knowledge of other suspects, or whereabouts at the time of a crime. While individuals are not required to respond to these questions other than to provide identification, the police interview process can feel like an arrest because the officials frequently do not allow one to walk away without answering the questions. Oftentimes police will hold a suspect in this way, unofficially, until they're able to determine if the person has an alibi or is linked to others suspected in a crime. An individual may also be asked to participate in a line-up of suspects before being arrested and booked. A line-up allows witnesses or victims of crimes to identify suspects, and this process may implicate a suspect even before an arrest takes place.
If police hold a suspect for a significant number of hours without an arrest, the person may seek a writ of habeas corpus from a judge to force police to release or charge him.
The booking process takes place when an individual is charged with a crime. It is followed by an arraignment before a judge for serious crimes, but may be concluded with a summons for a future court date when the charges are less significant.
When an arrest is official, the individual should be asked by police to sign or verbally acknowledge his understanding of Miranda Rights, which is the right to avoid self-incrimination by not answering questions. An attorney may be called or requested at this time so the individual best understands how to answer police questions. If a public defender is requested the arrest and booking period may be much longer due to the time required for this type of representative to be assigned to the case.
When police create booking records, they are legal documents that are primarily used to identify the suspect. Included in booking records are photographs called mug shots, fingerprints, and records of any items the suspect was carrying at the time of his arrest.
The information gathered in booking may be sent to other police agencies including the F.B.I. to determine if the suspect is wanted on other charges in other locations. It can also be used to determine if the suspect has used aliases – other names – when fingerprints are checked against a database of suspects. Photos of tattoos, scars and birthmarks may also become part of the booking records that can be used to identify an individual. Injuries like bruises or scratches may also be noted in case they come into play in the case against the suspect.
During the booking process, police may search the suspect's pockets and belongings as well as body cavities. If they find illegal material like drugs or guns they may charge the suspect with additional crimes. Once the booking process is complete it's likely police will do a more thorough search of the suspect's vehicle, or even get a search warrant for his home, to look for more incriminating items.
A swab of DNA is quickly becoming a normal part of booking records in most states and may be done in addition to a health screening that is used to determine if a suspect is carrying a contagious disease. No longer is DNA only used for serious crimes like murders or rapes, it's a unique identifier that can be matched against a database of other samples to resolve cold cases and to ascertain identity. In the future it's possible that police may turn to high-tech options like retinal scans for identifying suspects.
Sealing Booking Records
Some police jurisdictions are required to dispose of booking records if charges were dropped or if a suspect has been found not guilty, but others may keep records for many years, even allowing public document searches for them. Some information is likely to be redacted from public documents, including social security number and witness' names, but it is a good idea to search records to determine what information is available and have any nonessential booking records sealed if possible.