A client recently asked me, “How do I find out what is on my official criminal record?” The answer is not simple, but here is the gist of it.
Different people have different levels of access to official criminal information systems. Private databases gather this info from public records, and then sell it to the public. At the heart of the official system is the CJIS, which is the Federal database that most police departments can access at the touch of a button. This would include entries regarding almost any contact with police officers that resulted in an official action. Any time you may have been detained–even if only for a short period–it is recorded on CJIS. It is accessible not only to law-enforcement agencies, but also the military, intelligence agencies and even some friendly countries like Canada. Certain civilian organizations also have access. For example, many child-care non-profits have access to CJIS to screen employees for sex offenses.
The good news is that those who have official CJIS access are not supposed to share that access with those who don’t. That includes the general public. The bad news is that information is for sale and the better, more expensive private databases have most or all of what is on CJIS. Also, since 9-11 the states have been more integrated in criminal information systems. Incidents that wouldn’t have made it past the Desk Sergeant fifteen years ago are now federally recorded just so departments can cover themselves. Of course, there is always going to be some dysfunction and inaccuracies in a database of this magnitude. Getting these things fixed can be nearly impossible.
Some states like Massachusetts mandate that employers conduct criminal records checks through proscribed public systems like CORI. This can provide some protection for those who have old misdemeanor charges, or those who had their cases continued without a finding. Massachusetts also offers a streamlined system for sealing old or frivolous cases.
The bottom line is that the content of one’s criminal record depends on who is asking, and whether the person is willing to pay a private company to obtain the info. A good lawyer can help you find out what you need to worry about in a given situation.