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When anyone (or any company) needs to look up charges on someone fast, there’s a little-known process that allows access to government databases using the “police method,” which contain a “rap sheet” or a person’s criminal records.
How it works:
Whenever someone interacts with the Criminal Justice System in the United States, in any state, the incident is officially recorded. Usually a description of the criminal offense, when it happened and whether it’s a misdemeanor or felony are cataloged at the state and local level. But, the public record also usually includes the circumstances surrounding the arrest (the police report), the charges that were filed and if there was a trial, as well as its outcome, such as whether the charges were dismissed or dropped, or they resulted in a conviction. These documents, with few exceptions, are considered public, which allows anyone to access them.
This makes it easy to search for pending charges on a person, if the police method is used.
Search Criminal Court Records to Look Up Charges by State
To find out if someone has been charged with a crime, use the police method for looking up individual states’ records, use the following steps.
Step 1. Search the state’s Criminal Justice Department.
Each state houses these public records their own way, but the following table provides links that can be used to search for charges that were filed on someone. As an example, follow the link to Alaska below:
(This page contains a lot of information, including explanations of how to decipher abbreviations as well as how to enter information to perform the most effective search.)
Step 2. Navigate to the Courtview system, used in Alaska for how to look up charges on someone.
Step 3. Click Search Cases and choose the tab for “Name.” (If the case number and other information is available, enter it as well to narrow the search.)
Step 4. Click Search again and scroll through the results.
In this example for “Jon Smith,” the results were plentiful, but each instance, the date, and what type of charges were filed are included. Note, there are some records that are free to explore, while others do cost a small fee to access.
The following list provides links to each state’s website that provides access on how to look up charges on someone and specific state criminal records:
It is important to note, however, that these court records may not contain all charges filed against an individual, so police records should be obtained as well. There are also additional methods for gaining the most comprehensive information available on someone’s criminal history.
Once a potential employee or individual’s records have been searched at the state level (and multiple states if they’ve lived in more than one) then county records can be searched for additional charges. Police often search through both national and county-level records when conducting investigations.
Search District Courts By County
In addition to searching by state, county records can be searched to gain more granular data. County records often reveal more than state-level or even national records. Having a person’s full name, birth date, social security number, and last place of residence is the best way to begin a county search. Most online portals require this information at the beginning of a search, but others will allow searches with less.
There are district courts, and county courts. The U.S. constitution requires that only one court can exist within a county, but there are statutory county courts for areas with larger populations. County-level trials can vary in their scope. They’re ability to adjudicate a crime is based on the statute in a particular court. County court statutes can be the same as district court statues or differ.
Jurisdiction in county courts is usually presided over by the Justice of the Peace and has less power than a district court, state court, or federal court. Appellate jurisdiction is afforded to most county courts, which means a county court can review, amend, or overrule decisions of a lower court.
This means that all decisions on a person’s criminal activity, more often than not, are accurate, timely, and detailed at the county level.
How Can County Records be Accessed?
County checks are conducted electronically when those records are available to the public, but some counties require manual checks at a county courthouse by a clerk, an online researcher, or by allowing access to the clerk’s files. They are usually accessed with a fee through the internet. In some cases, access to county records are prohibited without special permission from a lawyer or law enforcement personnel. Most often, with a court case number, or docket number, county files are readily available.
For example, in Texas, crime records can be searched, as well as eight departments connected to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Information is available on how to look up charges on someone through the Crime Records Service (CRD), the Criminal Justice Information Service Security Office (CJIS), and the Texas Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) along with county-level court documentation. Texas county official sites, and counties in respective states in the U.S. can be found by searching for county clerk’s offices.
To perform a county level search of charges on someone, follow these steps:
Step 1. Search the county name, with the words “Court Clerk” (for example: “Miami Dade County Court Clerk”)
Step 2. Choose “Search for Cases” and navigate to the official county website.
Step 3. Choose the standard search process if the information is scanty, and the advanced option if more is available.
Step 4. Enter as much information in as many tabs as possible and choose “search.”
Step 5. Sift the results as necessary and either print or view the specific case results.
Although not all counties will have as advanced options as Miami Dade, many will have online search options for how to look up charges on someone, and if not, they will typically provide a link to the written request form as well as instructions for completing it and paying for the search to be performed.
What’s a County Level Background Check?
Most crimes are either felonies or misdemeanors, and are tried in local courts at jurisdictions all over the United States in county courthouses. A county level background check performs a search of the charges, arrests, court cases, and convictions (or dropped and dismissed charges) that occurred in the county. These records are maintained by the county clerk’s office, or Clerk of Court office. More than 3,2000 counties across the country maintain up-to-date data on criminal activity.
What Can Be Found in a County Criminal Check?
County level searches net results applicable under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) which can include:
- Detailed disposition information and the level of offense
- Felonies and misdemeanors
- Pending cases
- Dropped cases
What is Not Included in County Records
County criminal background checks won’t always include non-criminal activity like petty crimes, dismissed actions, expunged or forgiven acts, infractions, traffic tickets, etc. However, in the case of traffic violations, the severity of the crime will dictate whether it remains in the county record, or simply on the motor vehicles report record of the driver. Since most states don’t allow this type of activity to be used for employment consideration, renting, loans, and professional certifications, it is not necessarily pertinent to have access to it. Comprehensive state laws surrounding background check data used for employment can be found at The U.S. Equal Employment Commission.
The EEOC includes directives for using criminal background data on hiring, promotions, retention, reassignment, and firing.
To find out why someone was arrested, it’s a similar process, conducted within the county or state police departments. Since the reason for the arrest is generally outlined in the officer’s report, although it can be found, it will not usually be available through the county court clerk.
How Can the Most Information Be Gained from a County Check?
County checks are conducted with identifiers like name, aliases, previous addresses,current address, employment address, schools attended, and social security number. The more pieces of information that are fed into a county search the more reliable and full-scope the results tend to be. So in addition to basic information, having aliases and other known addresses can help narrow the search.
If someone gives the name Jonathan Smith to the police, but also has records under Jon Smith, this name can be searched with other identifying information as well.1
State-Level Fingerprint Checks
State level fingerprint checks are conducted by the state police. For example, a fingerprint application can be submitted through the Texas DPS for a FAST criminal history check by authorized individuals (usually police or law enforcement agencies) for employment, professional licensing, volunteer checks, and more.
Background check information is also available at the county level. For instance, in Travis County in Austin, Texas, the district clerk allows access to public criminal background data. Felony and misdemeanor information can be entered into the Travis County Court search database with the following information:
- Potentially arrested person’s name
- Attorney’s name
- Judge’s name
- Court number
- Case number
Travis County, in Austin, TX also offers a criminal docket search.
When an individual or institution needs a criminal history information and how to look up charges on someone, the best bet is to start with state-level data. Once an address history is evident, county level dockets and court records can be searched to obtain further information.
The next step is to go wider, with a federal search.
Finding Federal Criminal Conviction Records and Charges
To know how to look up charges on someone fast, it is sometimes beneficial to look into federal criminal records.
National background checks reveal convictions and pending court cases. This is where the name of the database where the crime is reported can be found as well as the verdict, the date of the verdict, whether it was expunged, and more. Sentencing and disposition information also often appears on national checks.2
Not every crime is a federal offense, as outlined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, when a crime is brought to the attention of the federal government, it is charged with investigating it and will often have records on that investigation.
Federal Warrant Searches
Federal warrant searches allow interested parties to look into warrant records in all 50 states. Those looking to pass a background check with a warrant have leeway in some states, but most often warrants still show up on federal records. The U.S. Marshal’s Service offers access to national warrant records as well through the Warrant Information System or WIN. This system tracks:
- Federal warrants to aid fugitive investigations
- Data in the National Institute of Corrections (NCIC) and NLETS systems that maintain Federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agency information. NLETS is a private system owned by all 50 states to allow for a networked data system containing information services for public safety.
FBI Fingerprinted Background Checks and Expedited FBI Background Checks
FBI Identity History Summary Checks allow for a look into a person’s “rap sheet,” or all information connected to fingerprints that are connected to arrests, federal employment, naturalization, or military employment. If someone’s fingerprints have been taken for these purposes, criminal history may show up for:
- Criminal submissions
Expedited FBI background checks can also be conducted to reduce the total time for these checks, which is normally up to 3 months to a few weeks or even 48 hours in some cases. An expedited background check will include all records, even if they have been expunged, sealed, or they include convictions carried out by a minor.
Do Federal Records Have Complete Information?
While national checks contain lots of files since they are connected to national databases, they don’t contain non-digitized records that are kept at county courthouses. For the most accurate and up-to-date information, each county where someone has lived should be searched digitally first, and manually if those records have not been made digital.
State databases can offer an overarching view when more granular address history is needed, and from there, county court records are a great source of background information, including any charges against someone.
When learning how to look up charges on someone, the fastest and most accurate method is to use the state and county level court systems, which contain records anyone can search quickly.
1What is the difference between a County and statewide criminal search? (n.d.). Insights from Orange Tree.Web. <https://blog.orangetreescreening.com/what-is-the-difference-between-a-county-and-statewide-criminal-search>
2What are national, federal, state, and County background checks? (2020, February 18). GoodHire.Web. <https://www.goodhire.com/resources/articles/national-federal-state-county-background-checks/>