Can a private citizen access criminal records to find out whether someone has been convicted of a crime? If the answer is yes, how?
Yes, most (but not all) criminal court records are accessible to the public.
Public access. In the United States, criminal records, like most criminal proceedings, are generally considered public. Public court proceedings are meant to hold the justice system accountable by allowing the public and media to see and report justice at work. Likewise, public access to court records helps serve this goal (although some argue public access should have its limits). But, for the most part, anyone can go to a court clerk's office (and, sometimes, on a court or state agency website) and search the files for records of conviction for a certain person.
Sealed records. An exception to the public access rules applies when convictions have been sealed by the court from public view. Most states' laws allow individuals with criminal records to ask a court to seal (or "expunge") certain convictions. The requirements for sealing a record vary widely by state. (To learn more about sealing criminal records, see Nolo's article Expungement of Criminal Records: The Basics.)
Record holders. The FBI, state criminal records offices (or central repositories), and courts keep databases on criminal history records. Generally, only government personnel (such as prosecutors and law enforcement) have complete access to these databases. But limited access may be available to the public. (Another level of access might be available for employment background checks.) Until relatively recently, if you wanted to find out if someone had a criminal record, your only method would be to visit the clerks' offices of every county in your state (and in the country, if you wanted to be really thorough). But the Internet and sophisticated data gathering changed all that.
Government records. You can still run down to the local courthouse or state criminal records office to search for criminal history records. In addition, many states place public criminal history records online. But, as noted above, only certain parts of the records are made available to the public. For conviction records, public information might include the defendant's name, list of convictions (including the offense and statutory citation), sentence (such as incarceration length or probation), and fines and fees. Information considered private (and not accessible) typically includes the defendant's social security number, medical history, and other sensitive data.
Search government records. To find criminal history records online, search for the name of the state and "criminal history records." Often, this search pulls up a bunch of websites. Look for records held by a state court (judiciary) or government agency (like a state bureau of investigations). But double-check the website you land on because it might be the website of a private search firm (discussed below), even if it looks official. Some states provide online access for free, while others charge a fee. (Physical court records should be free to review at the courthouse, but they might charge you for copies.)
Private search companies. In your search, you'll likely find a myriad of private criminal background search firms. These online websites may or may not charge a fee for criminal history searches. It's important to know how these companies work and why their information might not be reliable. These private, for-profit companies gather conviction records in multiple ways. They might go the old-fashioned route (by sending people to the courthouse to check the files), troll the Internet, or pay for batch downloads of government data. Even if the initial record information is accurate government data, these companies don't always keep the information up to date with new court orders, such as expungements, dismissals, or acquittals. Regulation of the companies and the accuracy of their information is limited and subject to abuse.
Caution! Whether you're searching a government website or a private company website (but especially the latter), know that mistakes happen and data can be inaccurate. As mentioned above, private companies don't always keep data up to date or check its accuracy. Government data can be flawed, as well. Say, a police officer arrests James Smith in New York City for drug sales. When entering the arrest record, the officer accidentally attaches the arrest to the record of another James Smith of New York City, whose only interaction with the justice system is a speeding ticket. Now, James Smith—with one traffic ticket to his name—has a drug sales arrest on his record. Another way for inaccurate data to get into the system is through identity theft. A thief steals your wallet and then robs a store. When the police ask for the thief's identification, he pulls out your driver's license. It's also possible for a person to have a record expunged, but due to a glitch in the system, the record is not sealed.
Verify accuracy. The point being: you can't always rely on what you find on a website. If you're hiring someone for a job, most states will have a process where the individual can provide fingerprints to ensure the right file is found (or not found). Do your due diligence to verify the accuracy of the record if you're relying on it.