A criminal record, sometimes called a rap sheet, is a collection of a person's criminal convictions and arrests. The information in the record varies from state to state and even from county to county.
You are entitled to a copy of your own criminal record. While some states have laws that protect the privacy of certain criminal records, in this day and age, it is 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 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 of your criminal record from the FBI or your state bureau of investigation, state police, or state public safety office. You may 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 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 are charged with a crime, your defense attorney will get a copy of your criminal record and examine it carefully for any errors. Other organizations, such as employers and schools, may 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 will probably not be offered the job.
In some states, there are limits on what kind of criminal record information employers can access or request. 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 may 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 information that is publicly available.
As a general rule, your criminal record may be checked:
For example, attorneys who apply to the state bar are subject to criminal records checks.
If your criminal record contains any inaccurate information that is detrimental to you, you need to ask the state to correct it. If you are currently facing charges, your defense attorney can help you do this. For example, a misdemeanor conviction may be listed as a felony, or the criminal conviction of someone else with the same name may be included in your record.
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.
For more information on sex offender registries, see State Sex Offender Registration and Federal Registration and Commitment Laws for Sex Offenders.
If you have previously been convicted of a crime, but have stayed out of trouble, you may be able to seal or expunge (destroy) your record. Generally, expunged convictions will not be included in a criminal record. While sealing and expunging does not necessarily clear your record for any and all purposes (for example, a law enforcement agency may still be able to access these records), it may allow you to truthfully state that you have not been convicted of a crime if asked by an employer or landlord. Generally, it is much more difficult, or 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 if you believe that your record should be expunged, you may want to talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can tell you what steps to take in order to correct or expunge your record.