How U.S. Criminal Records Work

Criminal Record Access

Your privacy rights are much more limited once you have a criminal record.
Your privacy rights are much more limited once you have a criminal record.
Andrejs Zemdega/iStockphoto

If you have a criminal record and would like to be able to see what it says about you, you're entitled to a copy of it under the Freedom of Information Act. Each state has its own process for this. Start with the court where you were convicted, or contact the state probation office, the public defender's office in your county or the federal defender's office if you were convicted in a federal court.

A person has limited privacy rights in his or her criminal record. Criminal records are:

  • Always accessible to law enforcement and justice agencies
  • Accessible to potential employers (with consent)
  • Not available to the general public

One important point to make here is that you cannot authorize someone other than a potential employer to obtain your criminal record -- even with your permission. Another point is that you can be discriminated against because of your record. A person with a criminal record is not considered to be in what is called a protected class -- a group of people that cannot be discriminated against because of their membership in the class. You can be refused a job, excluded from public housing and in general treated differently because of a criminal record. The only exception to this is that a person who has a felony for drug use may not be discriminated against because of that conviction.

A potential employer can ask you about your criminal record if you're applying for a job in which a record presents a concern. The employer can access your criminal record (with permission) through a credit agency or private firm. You can deny permission for a record check, but doing so is a red flag to the employer. In general, if you're asked about having a record, it's best to offer the information yourself and try to give an explanation when possible.

If you're applying for a job and your record presents a problem, it's possible to obtain fidelity bonding. This is essentially an insurance policy that protects the employer against any loss you might cause. You can purchase this type of bond yourself, or obtain it through a community rehabilitation program or the Federal Bonding Program.

Criminal records must be checked when a person applies to buy a firearm. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is the database used to screen potential firearm buyers. A person who has been indicted for a crime with a penalty of more than one year in prison is ineligible to purchase a gun.

Criminal records are shared across state borders as well as international borders. Read the next page to find out how it's done.