The first step in searching criminal records is contacting the Clerk of the Court – which is an elected official, responsible for maintaining court records with the utmost care and security. These records are filed with the Clerk’s Office and include criminal felony and misdemeanor cases, civil, family, probate and small claims proceedings, juvenile cases and traffic citations. If your applicant has lived within the court’s jurisdiction (which you can determine from the credit report you should have already pulled), you can contact the Clerk’s Office to inquire how to search criminal records. Most of the records filed with the Clerk are available for public inspection during normal business hours, with the exception of those records specifically exempt by judicial order or statute. You can pretty much count on each Clerk’s Offices around the country (there are thousands – usually, one for each county) to have their own individual policies and procedures.
Don’t worry! Most public records are free searches – after all, you are the taxpayer – and, if you’re lucky, a portion of your tax dollars helped to pay for the development of an official “Clerk of the Court” website, so that you can search online 24/7. If not, you need to gallop on over to the Clerk’s Office and stand in line like the rest of the cowpokes. While the search, itself, is usually free, do expect to pay a fee per page or abstract, should you want an official copy to take home with you.
You can’t dispute the fact that there is no greater investigative tool than the Internet – almost everyone is online, including most local, state and federal government offices. And while there is no publicly-accessible website from the federal government for criminal record searches per se, there are two useful websites:
1. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control website – (www.ustreas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/sdn) – offers the “Terrorist Watch List,” which is updated at least a couple of times a month.
2. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website – (www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/cac/states.htm) – offers a link to every states’ sex offender registry website.
As far as your best source for free local resources, you should check your sheriff’s or police department’s websites. Local law enforcement agencies often have a website that enables you to search for area sex offenders and often criminal records. If not, you may want to consider using a professional research service as discussed below.
While the Internet’s reach is essentially limitless, it still comes up a little short when trying to rely on free resources to adequately screen your applicants. Companies like AmerUSA were formed to provide professional research services that not only alleviate the landlord’s time and effort, but also ensure you are getting the best and most reliable information – which might otherwise be unattainable to the average person.
Every landlord agrees that if there is a way to save money without sacrificing comfort or quality, then take advantage of as many free opportunities that come your way! Therefore, it is suggested that you exhaust your local resources first; if you still need further assistance – or simply have applicants residing out of state – you should consider having a third party conduct the search for you; this is usually done for a reasonable fee of $30 or less for most services. Just make sure you never under estimate the likelihood of any applicant turning out to be a Bonnie or Clyde in sheep’s clothing.