Site makes criminal records easily available

Sarasota Herald Tribune, Brad Stone, August 3, 2008

Want to vet a baby sitter? Need to peek into the background of a prospective employee? Curious about the past of a potential date?

Last month, PeopleFinders, a 20-year-old company based in Sacramento, Calif., introduced, a free service to satisfy those common impulses. The site, which is supported by ads, lets people search by name through criminal archives of all 50 states and 3,500 counties in the United States. In the process, it just might upset a sensitive social balance once preserved by the difficulty of obtaining public documents such as criminal records.

Academics have a term for the old inaccessibility of records such as those for criminal convictions: "practical obscurity." Once upon a time, people in search of this data had to hire private investigators to navigate byzantine courthouses and rudimentary filing or computer systems, and to deal with often grim-faced legal clerks.

The obstacles to getting criminal information helped maintain an ignorance-fueled civil peace. Many convicts could start fresh after serving their time without strangers knowing their pasts, and there was little risk that unsophisticated researchers could confuse people with identical names.

Well, not anymore. The information on is available to all comers. "Do you really know who people are?" the site blares in large script at the top of the page.

Databases of criminal convictions first moved online several years ago. But users of pay sites such as and had to enter their credit card numbers for access -- often enough of an obstacle to discourage casual or improper inquiries.

According to Bryce Lane, president of PeopleFinders, the new site draws data directly from local courthouses and offers records of arrests and convictions in connection with everything from murder to minor infractions such as blowing past a stop sign -- at least for jurisdictions that include traffic violations in their criminal data. It also lets users view a map showing addresses and names of all those arrested or convicted of a crime in a specific neighborhood, and to place alerts that prompt e-mail when someone in their life gets arrested or someone with a record moves in nearby.

"We are just trying to provide what's already out there in an easier fashion, for free," Lane said. "We think it's pretty helpful to families."

PeopleFinders, originally called Confi-Check, was founded in 1988 by Rob Miller, a former investigator for Intel. PeopleFinders has been selling records to consumers for the past decade and recently acquired a large public-records firm -- Lane declines to say which one because the transaction was private -- that allowed it to introduce the expanded free service.

Lane concedes that his site contains some mistakes. Every locale has its own computer system, he notes, and some are digitizing and updating records faster than others.

A quick check of the database confirms that it is indeed imperfect. Some records are incomplete, and there is often no way to distinguish between people with the same names if you do not know their birthdays (and even that date is often missing).

To further test the site, the names of some colleagues at The New York Times were entered. One, who shall remain nameless, had a recent tangle with the law that the site labeled a "criminal offense," while adding no other information. The person was stunned to know that the infraction -- a speeding ticket -- was easily accessible and described as criminal.

"I went to traffic school so this wouldn't appear on my record," the colleague said, demanding that I ask PeopleFinders how to have the record removed. "I'm in shock. This blows me away. I don't necessarily want you all knowing that I'm a fast driver."

PeopleFinders' response: Take it up with the authorities. When the they update their records, the change will automatically appear on

In the past, Congress carefully considered how the public should use criminal records. Amendments to the Fair Credit Reporting Act in 1997 required that employers who hire investigators to obtain criminal records from consumer reporting agencies advise prospective employees of the search in advance, and disregard some types of convictions that are older than seven years.

"I don't think Congress stuck that in there randomly," says Daniel J. Solove, a professor of law at George Washington University Law School. "Congress made the judgment that after a certain period of time, people shouldn't be harmed by having convictions stick with them forever and ever."

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PeopleFinders is dedicated to helping you find people and learn more about them in a safe and responsible manner. PeopleFinders is not a Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA) as defined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). This site cannot be used for employment, credit or tenant screening, or any related purpose. For employment screening, please visit our partner, GoodHire. To learn more, please visit our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.