Although online sites advertise criminal background checks for a fee, a search for criminal records at county courthouses produces up-to-date, verifiable results. For varying fees, county court clerks can help you locate and copy criminal records. Some states also offer online searches, for a minimal fee, of their state court records. Some people prefer to hire a professional private investigator who's experienced searching court records and other resources.
Online Criminal Background Checks
Numerous online services advertise criminal background checks, many charging less than $20 for a one-time search. It's important to keep in mind, however, that these services are automated databases that pull from unknown sources, and there is no "live" person to help you interpret the results. Also, despite what some of these online services claim, there is no such thing as a national criminal background check, because there is no central, national repository of criminal records. If you want to conduct a substantiated criminal background check, your best bet is to start at a county courthouse.
County Criminal Records
To conduct a criminal background check of an individual, go to the county where that person has lived, worked or attended school. You can request any court records for that person by name, and the court clerk will inform you of any search, copying or redaction cost. Redaction is when a clerk crosses out certain personal information, such as street addresses and Social Security numbers, within a court record. Typically, these costs are minimal. For example, searching and redacting court records may cost $35 per hour and copying $.25 per page. As a general rule, courts do not release records for juveniles or victims of sex crimes.
State Criminal Records
Some states provide online access to criminal court records for a one-time search fee. For example, Colorado has the CoCourts.com database where anyone, for a $6.95 charge as of January 2011, can look up Colorado county criminal records by name, jurisdiction and date of birth. Searchsystems.net provides a listing of online criminal records searches for all states (see References), some of which are fee-based. Keep in mind that not all states require their county courts to report criminal cases, and when they do, some counties may not be timely in their reporting. Therefore, a state criminal records search might be incomplete or out of date.
National Sex Registry Search
Some online sites advertise national sex offender searches for a fee. As with any online criminal check, the buyer does not know from what sources the information is culled, how up to date the information is, and there's no person to help interpret the search results. Alternatively, a free, qualified resource for such a search is the U.S. Department of Justice's Dru Sjodin Sex Offender Public Website (see Resource). This database includes listings of registered sex offenders from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, participating tribes, District of Columbia and federal jurisdictions.
Hiring a Private Investigator
An efficient way to obtain criminal records is to hire a professional private investigator. Many investigators have years of experience searching public records, and can efficiently visit courthouses, as well as know where to find verified government online resources, to produce a comprehensive criminal background check. Private investigators typically charge per hour, the fee varying depending on the region and private investigator's experience. A person can also negotiate a flat-fee rate with the investigator. Check you state professional private investigator association for private investigators who conduct criminal checks (see References).
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