State by State Directory of Official Sources for Criminal History and Criminal Records Searches
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One of the most frequent questions we get when presenting our live Internet Investigative Research MCLE seminars regards "comprehensive criminal background searches." Seminar attendees are almost always surprised, and disappointed, when we explain that, despite all of the ads on the Internet suggesting the contrary, there is no such thing as a national criminal records database - at least not one that most of them can access.

Numerous sites on the Internet tout their "Nationwide Criminal Records Searches" or "Full Background Checks" (ranging in price from $14.95 to $49.95). While these sites might have some sort of criminal record information from all 50 states (and some territories, protectorates, etc.), they do not necessarily have records from every jurisdiction in every state. While New York state does make a criminal history report available to those who petition the state directly, New York WILL NOT sell access to its statewide criminal records to third-party vendors for resale. Vendors claiming to include criminal history information for New York might only have access to a limited number of court or law enforcement records. However, individuals can order a statewide Criminal History Record Search (CHRS) from the New York State Office of Court Administration. (Details are available from the link list/map below.)

One exception to sites that over-promise on their "Nationwide Criminal Records Searches" is SearchSystems, which offers "nationwide" and "statewide" criminal records searches. They are very clear about what is and is not included in their searches.

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The closest thing we have to a national criminal records database is the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database (available to federal and local criminal justice agencies, as well as some select, authorized, non-criminal justice agencies). But even the NCIC database is not a complete collection of criminal records information. We’ve been told by some law enforcement officials that because the NCIC relies on local law enforcement agencies and courts to report information for inclusion, its database it is not "complete." For example, the same law enforcement sources have told us that agencies in smaller jurisdictions often do not enter warrants for criminals if the jurisdiction is unwilling or unable to pay for the criminals’ extradition back to their jurisdiction for trial.

The NCIC database currently consists of 21 files. There are seven property files containing records of stolen articles, boats, guns, license plates, parts, securities, and vehicles. There are 14 persons files, including: Supervised Release; National Sex Offender Registry; Foreign Fugitive; Immigration Violator; Missing Person; Protection Order; Unidentified Person; U.S. Secret Service Protective; Gang; Known or Appropriately Suspected Terrorist; Wanted Person; Identity Theft; Violent Person; and National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Denied Transaction. The system also contains images that can be associated with NCIC records to help agencies identify people and property items. The Interstate Identification Index, WHAT IS THIS? which contains automated criminal history record information, is accessible through the same network as NCIC.

Even with these extensive files, the "FBI acknowledges that its NCIC database is limited, noting that it contains only about 50 to 55 percent of all available criminal records..."

Misuse of the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is subject to additional? federal criminal and/or civil penalties. The federal Privacy Act of 1974 states: (3) Any person who knowingly and willfully requests or obtains any record concerning an individual from an agency under false pretenses shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not more than $5,000. [5 USC Sec.552a(i)]

Misuse of criminal history record information obtained through NCIC violates the Code of Federal Regulation, Title 28, Section 20.25: Any agency or individual violating subpart B [State and Local Criminal History Record Information] of these regulations shall be subject to a civil penalty not to exceed $11,000 for a violation occurring on OR after September 29, 1999.

In 2014, a private investigator was arrested for bribing a New York city policeman to gain access to reports from the NCIC database. The policeman was also arrested. Both were charged with participating in a conspiracy to commit bribery and to access a federal database without authorization, one count of bribery, and one count of unauthorized database access, among other charges.

The FBI does offer an "Identity History Summary" search and a "Background Checks for Employment or Licensing" search for use under specific circumstances.

Many states do provide a mechanism to retrieve statewide criminal history reports to the public. Where available, the type and amount of information included in these criminal history reports and the process and cost of requesting them varies from state to state. We have created this directory as a resource to help you locate the official state sources for criminal record information. (Remember that federal criminal charges will not be included in these state databases.)



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