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 CriminalSearches.com, 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
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 CriminalSearches.com 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 Intelius.com and PeopleScanner.com had to enter their credit
card numbers for access -- often enough of an obstacle to discourage casual or
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
"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 CriminalSearches.com.
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."