Is It Legal to Look Up a Criminal Record for Anyone?

It’s easy to look up someone’s criminal record online. But is it legal to check someone’s criminal record?

It’s perfectly legal to check someone’s arrest record in some situations but not others.

Today, we’re explaining everything you need to know about the legality of looking up someone’s criminal record.

Woman Looking Up Criminal Records

It’s Legal to Check Someone’s Criminal Record for Personal Use

Are you curious about a neighbor’s marriage or divorce? Do you want to check if your daughter’s new coach has any previous criminal convictions? Are you interested in learning how old your coworker really is?

These are all considered personal requests. In most states and in most cases, it’s perfectly legal to check someone’s criminal record if you’re using the information for personal use.

If you’re not hiring someone or renting a house to someone, for example, then you can run a criminal record check on virtually anyone as long as you have that person’s first and last name.

You Need Consent to Check Someone’s Criminal Record for Professional Use

If you plan on using someone’s criminal record check for employment or housing, then you will generally need that person’s consent.

An employer needs the consent of the prospective employee before running a criminal record check, for example. A landlord needs the consent of the potential tenant before a background check.

If the criminal record check is going to be used to make important decisions about the future of the individual, then consent is generally required.
If you are requesting consent from an individual to perform a background check, then that consent form needs to indicate how the background check works. The consent form must explain how the information will be used, for example (say, to approve employment or a lease application).

Once you have received consent in writing (either online or in paper), you should be able to proceed with the background check.

‘Ban the Box’ Laws Restrict Employers from Asking About Criminal Convictions

Certain states have passed ‘ban the box’ laws. These laws prevent employers from requesting a criminal background check until the later stages of a job application process.

California’s ban the box law, for example, took affect on January 1, 2018. The law makes it illegal for private and public employers with five or more employees to ask about criminal history until the later stages of the application process.

The purpose of the law is to encourage employers to assess each applicant’s fitness for the job instead of immediately denying someone based on a criminal past.

As of December 2019, thirteen states (and the District of Columbia) have passed ban the box laws, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

Employers Must follow Additional Anti-Discriminatory Regulations with Background Checks

Only thirteen states have passed ban the box laws. However, employers in all states must follow other laws. There are federal anti-discrimination laws, for example. Certain states have passed laws restricting questions about an applicant’s criminal history.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), for example, has warned that employers that ask about an applicant’s criminal history may be violating anti-discrimination laws.

In order to avoid discrimination during the hiring process, the employer must individually verify each applicant’s crimes. If someone committed a non-violent, unrelated misdemeanor seven years ago and is otherwise qualified for the job, for example, then you may be discriminating against that applicant if you choose a less-qualified applicant with a clean record.

Some States Restrict Background Checks for Cases Older Than Seven Years

If you committed a crime eight years ago, then that crime may not appear on a criminal background check. In fact, many states have passed laws preventing employers from seeing someone’s criminal record back more than seven years.

In California, for example, employers are not permitted to check someone’s criminal record more than seven years in the past and use that information to make an employment decision.

Twelve states follow the ‘seven year rule’ and restrict reporting on any case older than seven years, including California, Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Texas, and Washington.

Outside of these states, most employers check an applicant’s history over the last 5 to 10 years.

Types of Criminal Background Searches

Depending on the type of criminal background search being performed, laws can vary widely. You might have to follow California’s background check laws when scanning criminal records in California, for example, but not in Texas.

The four major types of criminal record searches available today include:

  • Nationwide criminal databases (includes state and local crimes)
  • Federal criminal court (U.S. district and appellate courts for federal crimes)
  • County criminal court (County courts for charge and disposition cases)
  • Statewide criminal records (State courts and police records)
Consider Using a Professional Criminal Record Search Service to Avoid Legal Headaches

Confused by all of this legal information? That’s okay! There are professional criminal record search services that have compiled all of this information for you.

Professional criminal record search services like will scan millions of criminal records across federal, state, and county databases.

Thanks to these services, you don’t have to manually check each record and worry about legal problems along the way. Instead, these services take care of everything.

In many cases, you can actually save money by using these professional arrest record search services. Instead of paying a fee for each county or state record, you pay one simple fee, then rely on the search service to collect all of this information for you.

Final Word

It’s generally legal to look up a criminal record for anyone for personal reasons.
For professional reasons, however, like for landlords or employers checking the backgrounds of applicants, you generally need the consent of the applicant.

As with any legal questions, we recommend consulting with a lawyer to determine if your unique situation qualifies as a legal or illegal criminal record check.

If you need professional, instant, and fast criminal background check services, then use