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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 9:20 EDT

Criminal Records at a Glance Threaten a Social Balance

August 4, 2008

By Brad Stone

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 California, introduced CriminalSearches.com, a free service to satisfy those common impulses. The site, which is supported by advertising, 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 like criminal records.

Academics have a term for the old inaccessibility of records like 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 . In a way, the obstacles to getting criminal information maintained a valuable, ignorance-fueled civil peace. 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.

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 like Intelius.com and PeopleScanner.com had to enter their credit card numbers for access – often enough of an obstacle to discourage casual or improper inquiries.

Bryce Lane, president of PeopleFinders, said the site drew data directly from county courthouses and offered records of arrests and convictions in connection with everything from murder to, in some counties, infractions like running a stop sign. It also lets users view a map with addresses and names of all those arrested or convicted of a crime in a specific neighborhood, and place alerts that prompt e-mail messages when someone in their life gets busted or someone with a record moves nearby.

“We are just trying to provide what’s already out there in an easier fashion, for free,” said Lane, who has two young daughters and uses the site to scour his neighborhood for sex offenders. “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 last decade and recently acquired a large public records company – 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.

Privacy advocates work themselves into knots about this kind of site. 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 hired investigators to obtain criminal records from consumer reporting agencies advise prospective employees of the search in advance, and disregard some types of convictions that were older than seven years.

“I don’t think Congress stuck that in there randomly,” says Daniel Solove, a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and author of the book “Understanding Privacy.”"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.”

But now, of course, none of the old restrictions apply. The information is available from a variety of sources, and now free.

Jurors can and almost certainly will be tempted to look up criminal pasts of defendants in their cases. And employers can conduct searches themselves without hiring investigators. Lane of PeopleFinders says that employers cannot legally use the database in making hiring decisions – but there is nothing to stop them.

The Internet entrepreneurs making public records accessible have little patience for the privacy worrywarts.

“I think people generally understand the 21st-century reality that this type of public information is going to be widely available,” said Nick Matzorkis, the chief executive of ZabaSearch, a search engine that provides people’s addresses and phone numbers, culled from public records.

Lane of PeopleFinders concurs and compares his site to the seat belt, saying it will make everyone safer. Of course, that is easy for them to say. According to CriminalSearches.com, they are both clean.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.