A criminal record, sometimes called a rap sheet, is a written history of a person's criminal convictions and arrests. You're entitled to a copy of your criminal record.
The information in a criminal record varies from state to state and even from county to county. While some states have laws that protect the privacy of certain criminal records, in this day and age, it's safest to assume that any criminal arrest or conviction (unless expunged or sealed) is public knowledge. (Read more about expunging or sealing criminal records and the limits to sealing any record.)
Both state and federal law enforcement agencies maintain criminal records. Each agency sets its own standards regarding what to include in a record. However, as a general rule, criminal records will contain basic information about the person, such as name, birth date, aliases, and height and weight. Some criminal records contain only convictions, but most also contain arrest records. Conviction details vary as well, but records will usually include the date and court of conviction, the sentence, and whether the crime is a misdemeanor or a felony.
There are a few different ways to obtain a copy of your criminal record. The best way to obtain the most accurate information is to request a copy from the FBI or your state bureau of investigation, state police, or state public safety office. You might be required to submit your fingerprints. You can also visit your local police department and ask for a copy of your criminal record (or proof that you have no criminal record). Sometimes, a local police record will only have your local arrest and conviction records. An officer should be able to tell you what information is included in their records search.
Government agencies, such as law enforcement agencies, can access your criminal record without your consent. If you're charged with a crime, your defense attorney will get a copy of your criminal record and should examine it carefully for any errors.
Other organizations, such as employers and schools, might need your consent to obtain a copy of your criminal record, but refusing to give consent will almost certainly be considered a red flag. For example, if you refuse an employer's request to obtain a copy of your criminal record, you probably won't be offered the job.
In some states, there are limits on what kind of criminal record information employers can access or request. And some states have enacted "ban the box" laws, which prohibit employers from asking about a person's criminal history on job applications.
Beyond employers, the people who can obtain a copy of your criminal record can vary greatly from state to state. For example, in Georgia, all felony convictions are public record and can be obtained with a name and birth date after paying a $15 fee. In other states, less serious convictions might not be easily accessed. Private companies also sell criminal records online, to anyone willing to pay a fee, although these records are not necessarily complete, because they include only publicly available information.
As a general rule, your criminal record could be checked:
If your criminal record contains inaccurate information that's detrimental to you, you should ask the state to correct it. If you're currently facing charges, your defense attorney can help you do this. For example, a misdemeanor conviction might be listed as a felony, or the criminal conviction of someone else with the same name could be included in your record.
If you don't have a current case but want to make sure your criminal record is accurate, you can ask for a copy of it. You might have to pay a fee to get a copy of your record.
The process for getting any mistakes fixed will depend on the rules of the state involved. Some states provide a form you can use to correct mistakes in your record. Other states require that you send a letter to the agency that maintains your record, describing the mistakes and asking that they be fixed. Whatever method you use, the state must usually act on your request within a period of time determined by law.
To find out more, contact the agency that keeps your record on file. If you don't know where to start, search online for your state's name, followed by "how to correct errors in criminal record" or "how to challenge inaccurate criminal history."
For example, if you search "Texas how to correct errors in a criminal record," the results should list the Texas Department of Public Safety's webpage on "Criminal History Error Resolution."
All states and the federal government also maintain sex offender registries. Sex offender registries are generally public (and often available online) although sometimes information is only available for offenders who are considered to be particularly dangerous.
If you're on a sex offender registry and believe you shouldn't be or that the information posted about you is inaccurate, contact the registry officials for the registry you're on. They should have instructions on how to get it corrected.
For more information on sex offender registries, see State Sex Offender Registration and Federal Registration and Commitment Laws for Sex Offenders.
If you've previously been convicted of a crime, but have stayed out of trouble, you might be able to seal (keep secret) or expunge (destroy) your record. Generally, expunged convictions won't be included in a criminal record.
While sealing and expunging don't necessarily clear your record for all purposes (for example, law enforcement may still be able to access these records), it might allow you to truthfully state that you haven't been convicted of a crime if asked by an employer or landlord. Generally, it's much more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to seal or expunge records for serious criminal convictions.
A criminal record can make it hard to obtain work, rent an apartment, or qualify for a professional license. If your criminal record is inaccurate, or you believe your record should be expunged, you might want to talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney should be able to assist you or advise you on correcting or expunging your record.