Criminal Records



The first thing to understand about Criminal Records is that they are DYNAMIC, that is, they change literally every day. Charges are brought (and dismissed), convictions (and acquittals) are obtained, plea bargains are entered into, pardons are granted, and cases are expunged (removed from the records). Everyone knows this, but many either don’t remember this or don’t understand how PROPRIETARY DATABASES work.

Many of the companies which advertise criminal record searches on the internet and elsewhere are actually using proprietary databases exclusively.

Proprietary databases are snapshots of criminal records at a given point in time. NO company in the United States has the resources or procedures to obtain every change in criminal records, every day, for the more than 3,000 jurisdictions in the country. Assuming that a given database is complete when first compiled (which isn’t likely), its’ accuracy is only as good and complete as the latest update. For this reason, most experts in the field of public records consider that the only good criminal records search is an actual, hands-on search of the records by a competent court researcher.

CLEARS Inc. always directly searches the court records. We NEVER rely solely on a private, proprietary database for employment searches, although we may use them as a strictly SUPPLEMENTAL search in employment searches or tenant searches, always with the clients’ permission. In a few jurisdictions, direct access to the official government database is available; in most cases, we physically send an experienced researcher to the courthouse.

There’s an easy way to tell if any company you contemplate doing business with uses a proprietary database-EVERY company which does an actual criminal records search will make a point of telling you.

The second thing to understand is that criminal records exist in HIERARCHIES, or levels, with varying degrees of completeness and accuracy, even in the governmental agencies themselves.

About 95% of all criminal records originate at the county courthouse, which is still the best place to search for them. Although federal cases are often high profile, only about 5% of all criminal prosecutions are in federal court. In fact, that 5% is bound to become less in the future, because current changes in the FBI’s mission will reduce the number of regular criminal cases tried in federal court.

As explained below, there have been efforts made to consolidate criminal records at the state and federal level, to enable more comprehensive information resources.

A RULE OF THUMB is: at every level you go up from the county courthouse, something is lost; in other words, the records become LESS COMPLETE AND LESS ACCURATE.


Most states have some kind of central repository for criminal records, usually maintained by the state highway patrol or the state bureau of investigation. In theory, local law enforcement or the clerks of the courts are to forward all pertinent records to the central repository, to compile a complete statewide database of criminal records. In practice, as law enforcement and court researchers know, a great deal of information never gets into the central repository.

Rely on “statewide” criminal searches at your peril. While a valuable resource, they are usually not as complete or accurate as a county search. Also, a few states (e.g. California) do not consider their central repository to be public records, so they are available only to law enforcement.


THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A NATIONWIDE CRIMINAL SEARCH. Many find this hard to accept, since we’ve all heard of them on TV and in the movies. The only national database of criminal records in the United States is maintained by the FBI. First, that database is not accessible to anyone except law enforcement, except for certain statutory exceptions (e.g. federally licensed firearms dealers). Second, the FBI database is generally considered to have only about 40% to 60% of the data the individual states have in their records. Finally, if any provider has associates who are in law enforcement and obtains access to the FBI database (known as the NCIC), that action is strictly illegal. There are severe penalties for using this database for private purposes and for PURCHASING information illegally obtained.