- Assault & Battery
- Robbery & Burglary
- Drug Offenses
- Sex Offenses
- And More
By definition, criminal records are a permanent document that describes the legal action taken against a person who was charged with breaking the law. Criminal documents are kept in the digital or physical archives of police departments and district or county court houses and transmitted to the FBI when the legal action is concluded, following the convicted individual forever.
Criminal convictions affect many aspects of life, so accurate records are important. Checking one's own criminal record to ensure that information was entered correctly, or to learn if certain information can be suppressed, is worthwhile. Criminal records are accessed by law enforcement and public agencies for a number of reasons, including for national security, clearance to participate in community activities at schools, and when applying for a variety of licenses and permits, from alcohol sales to gun ownership.
Thoroughly checking your own criminal record is vital, as it may alert you to outstanding warrants, identity theft, and misinformation that can deny opportunities in education and in your community.
The process for checking one's own record, whether in district or county courts or, for felonies, through the FBI, may take several weeks. The federal record, called the Identity History Summary, includes submitting an online form to the FBI with payment and fingerprints. The State Department may require a certified version of this document showing that you have no criminal record, also called a Certificate of Good Conduct - for visas, adoption, education, and other travel abroad.
Minor crimes that may be punishable by five years in jail or less are generally decided in district courts. More serious crimes with more serious punishment are generally moved to superior courts after the criminal complaint is filed, and the preliminary indictment is evaluated by a grand jury before the trial proceeds.
County and district courts vary by state: in some rural, less-populated states, counties may share a district court. In other densely-populated states, local district courts are plentiful and there is at least one criminal court per county.
Local courthouses hold criminal conviction records in their archives and may provide information for expunging or sealing those documents. For instance, if an individual is found guilty of a misdemeanor charge that is his only conviction for several years, a judge may weigh information about the person's employment, conduct and lifestyle to determine if the conviction record unfairly punishes him. The steps for petitioning to seal records are found on court websites or by inquiring at the courthouse where the records were created.
Under certain circumstances it is possible to reopen a criminal record, get a felony reduced to a misdemeanor charge and significantly change one's criminal history. Again, the process is undertaken beginning at the court where the conviction occurred.
All felony convictions are reported to the FBI for record keeping and sharing across jurisdictions. The FBI's Bureau of Justice Statistics says the National Crime Information Center began in 1967 with five records and was sharing 80 percent of criminal records as of 2012, allowing law enforcement and court officers access to almost 95 million criminal records across state lines. In March 2016 the system processed over 15 million requests for information on a single day. Previously, states did not share information regularly and it was difficult to link crimes and criminals.
According to the FBI, the NCIC helps law enforcement in many jurisdictions solve cases by providing databases of stolen items; people of interest for reasons including being listed as missing, sex offenders, gang members, potential terrorists, those wanted for suspicion of identity theft, and similar circumstances; and photos that help to identify individuals and items. Another network with criminal history information is accessible through the same portal.