How to Search for Arrest Records

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Often our interactions with neighbors are like ships passing in the night. How can we be sure Megan who walks our dog while we're at work isn't an identity thief? Could our outgoing new next-door neighbor Sam be a parolee who was convicted of assault and battery?

Maybe, too, we've had our own run-ins with the police and want to verify that our juvenile drug possession arrest has been deleted from the public record (in legal jargon, "sealed" or "expunged") so that no employer will ever discover it.

For practical tips about how to search for arrest records, read on.

Searching for Arrest Records: Things to Consider Before You Start

Before beginning to search arrest records of any kind, pause for a moment to consider possible risks. If you're an employer, laws may affect how you can verify the background of a job applicant. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires employers to follow certain procedures and obtain a job applicant's written consent when ordering a criminal history check from a consumer reporting agency. The same is true of landlords who request a background check on a potential tenant.

These legal limitations won't apply if you're searching online for information about a neighbor. But keep in mind that you can be sued for defamation. For instance, you wouldn't want to spread a falsehood that new-guy-on-the-block Jonathan Smith is a child molester, when it turns out that the person listed in the sex offender registry is a different Jonathan Smith.

Sex Offender Registries

The easiest type of criminal history search to perform involves finding out whether someone is a convicted sex offender. The federal government and the states maintain sex offender registries, which are used to track and monitor individuals with past sex offense convictions and warn residents in the community about them. The registries typically provide a photograph of the individuals, leaving no doubt which Jonathan Smith it is.

The best place to start is the U.S. Department of Justice's National Sex Offender Public Website. It links to the public registry sites for all of the states. You can search a specific jurisdiction, or quickly run a national search that queries all the registries.

Other Criminal History Info

In contrast to sexual offenses, information about other criminal convictions can be more challenging to locate. While some states have created a statewide website to facilitate searching for residents' full criminal records, other jurisdictions haven't bothered to do so or, perhaps, have rejected the idea due to concerns of one type or another. In such places it may be necessary to pay a personal visit to the county courthouse (or numerous courthouses) in order to determine whether someone has arrests or convictions.

For example, let's say we live in Minneapolis and want to find out whether our child's new soccer coach Jason has a criminal record. We know his exact birth date, because we cleverly struck up a conversation with him in which he unsuspectingly disclosed it.

An internet search for "Minnesota criminal records" leads us to the user-friendly Minnesota Public Criminal History Search website. We enter Jason's full name and birth date and discover that he has no record, at least in the North Star State. We could also do a city-level internet search for "Minneapolis criminal records," which would take us to the Minneapolis Police Arrest/Contact Summary Records website.

States and cities vary in how easy they make it to learn about other people's past misdeeds. For instance, it's simpler to do this type of online research in Minnesota than in New York or California. The federal government doesn't provide quick public access to someone's federal criminal record, either.

Commercial Background Check Websites

As you probably know, numerous companies advertise on the internet that, for a fee, they'll search for someone's criminal history. They rely on private databases gathered from federal, state and local government records.

These sites may be a desirable option in some situations. For instance, if you're renting an apartment, there are a number of commercial background check websites that require a prospective tenant to voluntarily log in and provide a social security number and other personal information, which will be used to create a credit report that will be sent to you, the landlord. The report will reveal any criminal background that the individual may have in their history.

Have Questions About How to Search Arrest Records? Ask an Attorney

If you'd like assistance in obtaining someone's criminal record or wish to find out if it's possible to have your own record expunged so it won't be discoverable by potential employers, it's worth taking the time to speak with an attorney knowledgeable about the process. Contact a qualified criminal defense lawyer near you to learn more.

Next Steps

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