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 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.

A Murder in Texas

Today a customer wrote to us, perplexed at the results of his Premium Texas statewide criminal records search. This customer, whom we will call “Frank,” expected to find a number of criminal records for “BOBBIE RAY TATES,” including a notable conviction for the murder of wife CAROLYN TATES in August 2006. Instead, Frank’s search results came back saying “No Records Found.”

We double-checked our criminal record coverage for Texas and confirmed it is one of the best states in which to research criminal records. We have information from almost all of the county courts, and also statewide records from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which include court records and inmate records. So why didn’t anything for Bobbie Ray Tates turn up? Frank was certain about the murder conviction.

We wondered if Frank was as certain about Tates’ legal name and date of birth. Bobbie could be a nickname for Robert. Birth dates can be transposed by accident. We asked Frank if he knew the county in which this supposed conviction occurred. He believed it was Brazos County, TX.

Again we checked our coverage in Texas and determined that Brazos County contributes records to our Premium database on a monthly basis that include both felony and misdemeanor convictions since 1988.

Using our directory page for Texas Criminal Records, we clicked on a link to Brazos County Inmates. At that county site, we searched the name “Bobbie Tates.” Lo and behold, a list of 10 jail records appeared. Most were overnight jail stays courtesy of Tates’ frequent DWI arrests. The most recent record was a 2-year sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Tates was convicted on August 26, 2006, and according to the jail record, was released on February 25, 2008. Could he be walking around free? Was he not convicted of murder?

Or were we looking at records for the wrong man? The name listed on the jail records was “Bobbie Ray Tates” with the date of birth July 9, 1953. We checked the search query done by Frank on our site. He searched for “Bobbie R. Tates” and used a year-of-birth search, plus or minus 3 years in either direction. The year Frank typed in was 1961, so his search covered 1958 through 1964, and missed 1953.

Or was it still possible that Texas had two convicts with the same name? An online people-search could have given Frank a free preview of all persons named Bobbie R. Tates with address histories in Brazos County, TX… and even given approximate ages for them. We tried the same and discovered – free of charge – that the family of Bobbie and Carolyn Tates in Bryan, Texas (Brazos County) included two persons with the name “Bobbie R. Tates” – one age 57 and another age 36. The younger could be a son, or even a typo. Age 57 sounded about right for a person born in 1953.

Using our Texas Criminal Records page, we clicked on the link for Brazos County Criminal Court Records. We searched “Bobbie Tates” there and got a few additional records that did not appear on the county’s inmate search. We found a November 2006 murder conviction for Bobbie Ray Tates, born July 9, 1953. Now we were certain that we had found the correct record and that the man Frank was searching for was actually born in 1953.

The lesson here: In a state like Texas, you can search the county court sites for free and find records using only a first and last name. On the other hand, if you want to do a single statewide search, you will need to know the correct birth date for the subject. Otherwise, you may be chasing records for the wrong person, or not finding them at all. The criminal records retrieval system presented by the counties and states is far from perfect. A savvy researcher needs to use more than one tool from the drawer.

But this puzzle was not yet complete. We were still curious as to the present whereabouts of Mr. Tates. Was he really released in February 2008 after completing his sentence for the assault conviction? Or was that a primary sentence that became a longer stay once the murder conviction was handed down in November 2006?

Frank used our Texas Criminal Records page to find the link to a database of Texas Death Row Inmates, but Bobbie Ray Tates was not listed among those unfortunate souls. We checked the VineLink website for Texas statewide inmates, but it brought back no results for “Bobbie Tates” or “Robert Tates.” Then we noticed that VineLink’s Texas page has a disclaimer that it does not include records from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). That is a very large omission.

Using our Texas Criminal Records page, we used the link to the TDCJ website search page, where we searched the name “Bobbie Tates.” After a significant wait time from their server, we found the answer to the final question: Tates is presently incarcerated in the Stiles prison facility in Beaumont, TX, doing a 40 year stretch for murder.

If Frank had run his Bobbie Tates Premium search with a 7-year year of birth range that included 1953, he would have found not only the current TDCJ inmate record for Tates, but all of his state, county and local criminal records over the years, including the tragic 2006 murder of his wife.

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.

Time Off for Bad Behavior

Public records are like historical facts. Each one is part of the story of someone’s life. As we often discover when we research public records, some of those stories are quite outlandish. For example, take a look at the FBI Most Wanted List from their Cincinnati, Ohio field office, found on this criminal wants and warrants directory. The saga of Lester Edward Eubanks reads like a character back-story in an Elmore Leonard novel:

“Lester Eubanks is wanted for escaping from jail. On May 25, 1966, Eubanks was convicted of murdering a teenage girl during an attempted rape in Mansfield, Ohio. Eubanks shot the victim twice. He then returned to the victim’s location and smashed her skull with a brick. At the time of the offense, Eubanks was on bail for another attempted rape.”

That’s absolutely horrible, but that isn’t the outlandish part. Eubanks is still at large, and as described above, he’s wanted for escaping from jail. The truth is, Eubanks didn’t exactly escape from jail. He escaped from a mall during a Christmas shopping spree. Here is the rest of the story, quoted verbatim from the FBI site:

“On December 7, 1973, Eubanks walked away from an honor assignment from the Ohio Correctional Center in Columbus, Ohio. Reportedly, Eubanks was taken to a shopping center in the south end of Columbus and dropped off to go Christmas shopping by prison officials. Eubanks failed to return to his scheduled pick-up point and was reported by prison officials as a “walkaway.” Eubanks had been sentenced to death in the electric chair, and after three unsuccessful appeals, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. This was due to a 1972 Supreme Court decision that ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.”

So first Eubanks catches a break when the death penalty is abolished in Ohio (Note: Ohio has since reinstated the death penalty, as evidenced by this list of current death row inmates). Eubanks then asks the warden if he can buy some Christmas gifts for his family. He catches another break when the prison officials “drop him off” at a shopping center and instruct him to return an hour later for his ride back to prison.

It is hard to believe that prison officials were so gullible.

The FBI bulletin about Eubanks sprinkles in other interesting facts about the fugitive. He was a former Air Force medic (possibly in the Vietnam War?), and held menial jobs after that. He holds a degree in martial arts and a black belt in karate, and is described as a practicing Baptist. The FBI site also indicates that Eubanks was living in California in the early 1990’s. So apparently witnesses spotted him two decades after his initial escape. A federal arrest warrant was put out for him in 1996 and there is currently a $10,000 reward for information leading to Eubanks’ capture.

So if you see Mr. Eubanks, at your local shopping mall or elsewhere, do NOT try to apprehend him. Report the sighting to the FBI.

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.

How to Visit an Inmate

In the Criminal Records section of our directory, we link to quite a few inmate databases. One popular resource is the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmate locator where you can find the location of federal inmates nationwide. Also on the BOP site are stringent guidelines for inmate visitation at federal institutions. We took at look at those and for the purpose of this article compared them to the guidelines for inmate visitation at California state institutions.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) manages the California prison system. According to their guidelines, each inmate must mail a visitor questionnaire form to each visitor they approve on their list. Visitors must then fill out the form, including details on criminal records, arrests, or charges on their own record. The CDCR will run a background check to verify this information and make a determination if that person can be approved for visitation. The CDCR seems especially keen to determine if visitors are being honest.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has a similar procedure, though they seem mostly concerned about whether they can allow convicted felons to visit current inmates. It is a federal felony for anyone convicted of a felony to be on federal prison grounds without the permission of the warden.

Federal inmates get at least four hours of visitation rights per month, unless these rights have been revoked as a disciplinary measure. The California CDCR guide explains that some inmates are allowed up to 40 consecutive hours of family visitation in an “apartment-like setting” on the state prison grounds. Sounds like a weeklong conjugal visit to us. By contrast, the Federal BOP makes it explicitly clear that no conjugal visits are allowed.

We acknowledge that it can’t be easy to be in prison, and it may be emotionally difficult to see a loved one in prison. Knowing what the rules are before you visit is helpful. In this article, we explain those rules. Some may sound a bit silly or extreme. So if you get clearance for a contact visit at a typical state or federal facility, here’s what to expect:

Your vehicle will be subject to a visual inspection, trunk inspection, and possibly a go-round from a drug-sniffing K-9 unit.

You’ll need proper ID and you’ll need to be on the approved visitor list. Some state facilities may require an appointment due to overcrowding. Even so, you may be required to wait a few hours if there is a lockdown or head-count going on inside the prison. You will be subjected to a metal detector scan and personal search.

If you bring minor children, have their birth certificates with you. They will be subjected to the same security search.

Some facilities will only allow you to bring in one key ring with two keys on it. Apparently if you own more than two keys you may be flagged as an escape artist. Really.

What to wear? On the Federal site, there’s a whole list of clothing articles that are verboten. Most apply to women’s clothing – no leotards, spandex, mini-skirts, transparent clothing, sleeveless garments, open-back dresses, etc. Did we mention no spandex? That rule probably goes for the men too, regardless of the 80’s rock band you idolize.

California also says nay to wigs and hairpieces… unless medically necessary.

Of particular interest is the ban on clothing that resembles inmate or staff attire. It seems they don’t want visitors being mistaken as someone else. So if you’re thinking of donning an orange jumpsuit as a show of solidarity, you may want to think again. California says that blue denim is restricted too, as the state prisons may issue uniforms in denim. Another outfit you should avoid… muumuus… especially ones that resemble prisoner muumuus. We can only assume they are referring to female inmate attire here.

Oh, almost forgot: No shower shoes. That should be a general law for all of us. Leave your shower shoes at home.

Obviously, weapons, drugs, and other contraband are not allowed. Don’t bring gifts for an inmate, unless you make advance arrangements with the warden.

The California prisons provide vending machines to visitors, which offer food and beverages for sale. No outside food is permitted, so this would be your only option once you are inside. They also provide digital cameras for photo ops with your inmate (since you are not permitted to bring in cameras or phones). Inmates can then purchase copies of these photos. It seems no opportunity for monetizing has been overlooked by the corrections department.

Pets are not allowed, unless you have a service animal. Religious texts must be approved before they can be brought into the visiting room; however, most rooms are already stocked with Bibles, Korans, and Torahs you can use.

If you require use of a cane, wheelchair, or crutches, you will be asked to leave these items outside the visiting area and use a substitute device provided by the facility. One can imagine the reasons why this rule is in place, but perhaps it is best not to speculate here.

In general, the rules and guidelines for inmate visitation in state and federal prisons are quite similar. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation provides a more comprehensive online guidebook than the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

We also took a look at the inmate visitation guidelines for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Jail Facility. They are quite relaxed compared to the state and federal guidelines. LA County says that members of the general public may visit inmates at any county facility. Proper ID is required, and they will ask about your criminal background. The inmate information site for LA County does not specify whether contact visits are allowed for everyone. If their posted guidelines are for non-contact visits (through a glass window), it would explain the relaxed security requirements. To be on the safe side, we would still skip the muumuu.