Criminal Records – The Beast with 12 Heads

The most common misconception about public records is that “Nationwide” criminal record services (even ours) provide access to ALL records in the United States.

The truth is, each jurisdiction, county, and state has different rules and opinions about what records should be accessible, who may access criminal records, and if they will provide the public access at all. In fact, NO ONE has access to all of the criminal records nationwide, aside from the FBI. So unless you have a friend at the Bureau, you must face the beast with 12 heads. One head is the states like Massachusetts, California, and Louisiana that don’t allow the general public to have access to statewide criminal records. Another head is states like New York that do allow statewide access, but only through an expensive New York State service; no one else may provide access to their records. A third head is jurisdictions like Washoe and Clark Counties in Nevada who provide access to their records online for free—but like New York make sure that they’re the only online providers. The list goes on and on. Get the picture?

We helped a customer who was frustrated after paying to access a few reputable online criminal background databases, only to wind up empty handed. He knew the subject of his search had convictions in the state of Michigan, yet his Nationwide search at one service turned up nothing.

It is easy to understand why the customer was frustrated. We had to reveal the truth about the beast with 12 heads. You cannot enter the Gorgon’s lair with eyes averted and slay the beast with one swing of your sword. You have to go after each head until you know you have dispatched them all.

We put on our research helmets and asked the customer for details on his subject. The man with the criminal record – we’ll call him EDDIE SMITH – was born on January 1, 1970. The customer was certain that Eddie served some time in jail, and was convicted of a felony in Genessee County, MI. The customer needed proof, which is why he paid good money for online background searches.

The first thing we did was bring up the Michigan coverage page for our Premium Criminal Record database. Michigan provides us with data from their OTIS system, which is a tracking database of prisoners, parolees, and probationers who have spent time in the Michigan State prison system. We noted that the OTIS system does not include records for persons who spent time in county jail. That is a different system. The Michigan State Department of Corrections runs the state prisons. Each county runs their own jail. This is true for most U.S. States. If Eddie Smith was sentenced to county jail time only, then OTIS would not have records for him.

That was the situation with state prison records. What about county records and county court records?

Genessee County’s 67th District Court does provide records to outside agencies, but only the misdemeanors. Felonies are not included. This explains why Eddie’s Genessee County felony did not show up.

We assured the customer that paying for a statewide criminal search in Michigan was not a complete waste of time… if Eddie Smith had other types of convictions in Genessee County or other counties in Michigan, the statewide search might have brought those to his attention.

We pointed out to the customer that he could complete his search of Genessee County by using our free criminal records directory, which provides links to databases maintained by the county courts. Using the directory links, he could find other records not included in the statewide databases, like arrest records, jail records, inmate records, etc.

We walked the customer through the steps needed to find those web links on our directory. Starting with our FREE PUBLIC RECORDS LOCATOR tool box on our home page, we asked the customer to use the drop-down menu of the “By Type of Record” tool, where he then selected “Criminal Records.” At the following page, he selected “Michigan Criminal Records” from the list of states. On the Michigan Criminal Records page, we pointed out the link to the Michigan State Police service, where he could pay $10 for an “Official” Michigan criminal history.

Scrolling down further on the page, we found the link to the Genessee County 67th District Court site, where we ran a free search for Eddie Smith. This court site includes both felonies and misdemeanors… and there we found the record for Smith’s felony conviction, which indicated that state prison time was not required. The customer printed out the details for free.

Feeling empowered now with his free SearchSystems.net membership and newfound knowledge, the customer thanked us and went on to research criminal records for other subjects in his file. There may be 12 heads to this beast, but we provide the weapons to find and strike them down.

When Criminal Record Searches Go Awry

One of our customers, whom we’ll call Ronald L. Smith, Jr., contacted us to seek help with a criminal record search in the state of North Carolina. Ron performed two searches on his own name using our huge Premium Criminal Record Database that contains over 400 million records. Neither search produced any results, and as Ron knows that he has criminal convictions on his record, he reached out to us for an explanation. Was the database flawed or incomplete?

As it turned out, it’s neither. The database is complete and the powerful search features offered by the service helped us to locate all of the records Ron was searching for. Here’s what happened…

On the first search he used the Personal Search advanced page. He input the nickname “Ron” to search and checked that he wanted an “Exact” name search. The system then looked only for records that exactly matched the first name “Ron” (and a last name of Smith) and the results came up “no record” because they’re listed in court records under the name of “Ronald Smith.”

If Ron had asked for an exact name search and “Ronald” as the first name, or left the “Exact” name search unchecked, he would have received his records. We provide concise instructions and encourage people to read them before they do a search. It is best to search by full legal name, or do a partial name search if you aren’t sure of the name on record. So do a partial name search on “Ron” and you’ll get “Ron,” “Ronnie,” “Ronald,” etc. Or do a partial name search on “Ric” and you’ll get “Rick,” “Rickie,” “Richard,” “Ricardo,” etc. That way if someone does give a nickname to the court or the police, you stand a better chance of finding the record.

On the second search, Ron searched the same name, and this time unchecked the “Exact Name” box, which is the right thing to do if you’re searching a partial name. But in the second search he added “Jr” after the last name. We strongly advise against inputting information such as Jr., Sr., M.D., etc, into a search field. Right above the search fields we state: “Please fill out the required fields below. Please DO NOT include suffixes such as Jr., Sr., III, M.D., and PhD in the first or last name fields.” The reason we ask that people not to include suffixes is that most courts don’t include suffixes when they list a court record. Electronic databases match the input information to database records. Since the courts didn’t add “Jr.” to the records, the search result came up “no records found.”

We performed a statewide search ourselves in North Carolina and found a number of records for Ronald L. Smith, matching the customer’s birth date, which we forwarded to the customer. Our criminal records database offers powerful search features, but like any sophisticated tool, it demands a bit of respect and study before you use it. For more tips, use our Criminal Records Best Practices Guide. For a listing of the jurisdictions covered in each state, go here.

Criminal Records Help

We feel that we provide the best criminal records resource available on the Internet.

Here’s why:

We’ve worked for 15 years to find and organize available free criminal court, inmate, and offender databases so that you may easily find the background information you need—for free.

That’s great if you only need to search a few counties, but it would take hours just to search all of the available Ohio county court and inmate databases. So to help you save time we offer the largest single criminal record resource available on the Internet—over 400 million records—which now includes over 70 national and international terrorist, wanted, and debarred persons databases. We do charge a fee for this, but we feel it’s nominal considering the breadth and scope of coverage– $6.95 for a state search and $14.95 to search the entire database.

In addition we have reorganized the databases for each state and now feature a short guide that contains instructions on how to do your own criminal background searches in each state.

Take our Florida Criminal Records page as an example. Statewide databases are now listed first under the Featured Public Records heading. County and local databases are listed in alphabetical order below those, under the standard Public Records heading. Free searches for city, county, and state databases are easily accessible. More importantly, we now provide information on how to do official criminal history checks through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

There’s no more guesswork about which databases to focus on or what you need to do an official state search. We tell you what is available through each method so you can quickly decide which fits your needs.

If you still have questions about locating records in a certain state or jurisdiction, feel free to send us a message and we’ll try to respond back quickly with an answer.

Beware of Bait-and-Switch Background Check Sites

We are alarmed that some companies on the Internet are deliberately misleading people about background checks.

One user called us to complain about not finding criminal record results when she used our Premium Criminal Records database, which was surprising because it is the most complete criminal record database available online: over 400 million records, including over 70 debarred persons and terrorist. When we asked why she expected a record to turn up for her subject, she explained that before coming to our site, she ran a free preview through another online service that provides background reports. That site had a very slick interface that promised to provide all available criminal records from all states, and it gave her a list of matches for the person she searched, indicating that all the names on the list had criminal records in the database.

Instead of paying for those results, the customer came to Search Systems to take advantage of our lower search fee. She expected our results to be identical, but when no records were found, she assumed that our database was inferior to the one provided by the first company.

We knew something was wrong because 1) only the FBI’s database has close to “all records in all states” and it’s only available to law enforcement; and 2) most people DON’T have criminal records.

We decided to foot the bill and take the Challenge. We went to the first website the customer had used and we paid for their full search results for the same subject. When the results arrived, we discovered that there were NO criminal records for the subject. Instead, the service gave us “people finder” results, which are name and address matches. They fraudulently induced us with a misleading preview, then provided people-finder records after we paid to view the details.

The lesson here is that if an online service purports to sell you criminal record information, they should also provide you with a list of the sources for each state (the coverage). If you don’t see that coverage available to view before you buy… beware.

Another red flag is that most reputable criminal record database providers do not provide a “free preview” indicating the number of actual criminal records matching your subject. This is typically the procedure for people searches, so if you see this in practice, be careful. The site may be pulling a bait-and-switch.