What is a Criminal Record?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 30 May 2019
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A criminal record, or "rap sheet" as it is sometimes called, is a document which provides information about someone's history of contacts with law enforcement and the legal system. The type of information in a criminal record can vary, depending on the age of the person in question and the country. Such records are utilized for background checks and a variety of other tasks in which someone's criminal history may be relevant.

A very basic criminal record will just contain a list of the crimes that someone has been convicted of. More detailed records include all arrests and their outcomes along with any crimes which have not been expunged from the record. The criminal record can also note down identifying information, such as height and weight, and other information which may be used descriptively along with the subject's address.

Juvenile criminal records are usually sealed, meaning that they can only be accessed in special situations. It is also possible for adults to seal all or part of their records by request. In other cases, however, a criminal record is public information and anyone can access it by filing a records request and usually paying a small fee to compensate clerks for pulling the record and providing a copy.


When people apply for jobs, they may be asked to undergo a background check which will include a review of their criminal records. For a fee, employers can access a system which provides reports of this nature, or they may opt to hire people to perform background checks. Background checks are especially common for jobs where people will be handling sensitive or valuable material or working with children; teachers, for example, need to successfully pass a background check which checks for any signs which indicate that they might be a risk to students.

Criminal records are technically public records, which means that anyone can access them. Laypeople may find the task of reviewing such records daunting, however. Most people do not have access to the automated systems which collate information and must request records manually from relevant agencies; in the process they may miss aspects of a criminal record which might be important. In recognition of the fact that some people may be concerned about specific risks, some communities have enacted registration requirements for certain types of criminals. Sex offenders, for example, often must register and people can look up their neighborhoods to see if any registered offenders are located in their vicinity.


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Post 5

If the record is sealed or expunged, what will happen when a federal government agency runs a background check with a fingerprint check? Will it show up?

Post 4

BrickBack-I know that many companies require a criminal record check.

A public criminal record is not difficult to find, but most Human Resources departments pay a fee to do a criminal record lookup an a prospective employee.

Most companies do this because it is less time consuming for them.

I also know that a public criminal record is found with the mandatory state registrations of sex offenders. This registry is free and tells you the charges, the incarcerated timeframe, and what if any probationary period there is for the sex offender.

I actually found information regarding a neighbor that was quite disturbing. The registry has a picture of the assailant so there is no question that I had the right person.

Post 3

Mutsy- There are exceptions to this rule. If the charges involve domestic violence, arson, battery, homicide, child abuse, drug related offenses, child pornography, child molestation or lewd acts in front of a minor, stalking, manslaughter and kidnapping are just some of the many crimes not allowed to be expunged.

These serious crimes can never be expunged because they can harm the general public if this information is withheld.

Post 2

SurfNturf-I will answer that for you. A state criminal record can be expunged if the charges were dismissed, not filed, dropped or you were found not guilty.

If you are convicted of a crime, you can not have your criminal court record expunged or sealed at all.

The only way this can happen is if the judge withholds adjudication which means that you are guilty of the crime, but are not convicted. In these situations, the judge will usually offer probation and the record can be expunged or sealed.

Post 1

Can you expunge a criminal record for any crime?

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