Once upon a time, if you committed a crime in Philadelphia, you could just move to Pittsburgh, and no one would know about your criminal past. There was no electricity, let alone a computer data base. There was really no way for one county to communicate with another county about a suspect's prior record, and even if there were an efficient means of communication, how could the authorities in the arresting county enquire about a criminal record in every other county in the United States?
Eventually, Pennsylvania developed a statewide system for maintaining criminal records, known as the "Central Repository of Criminal Records." It is operated by the Pennsylvania State Police in Harrisburg. Before the internet, members of law enforcement would have to submit a written inquiry about a suspect or defendant's criminal history, and then wait for a response in the mail. Now, of course, the Central Repository of Criminal Records is on the internet, allowing police, prosecutors, probation officers and judges to instantly check a person's criminal record.
In the old days, one could run away from a criminal past by simply moving to another state, where the authorities had no record of past crimes. That all changed in 1967, when the FBI brought into existence NCIC (The National Crime Information Center). Ever since 1967, a record of all criminal charges and convictions in all 50 states, US territories and Indian reservations has been maintained by the FBI. All members of law enforcement have access to the NCIC system. If you commit a crime in California, the police will know about it when you are arrested five years later in Pennsylvania, after a few clicks of the mouse.
Not only is it easier for law enforcement and other members of officialdom to look up a person's criminal background check, it is also easy for private citizens to do the same thing. Most states now maintain websites allowing anyone with internet access to look up the criminal dockets of all the criminal cases filed in the state. In Pennsylvania, such a website is maintained by the AOPC (Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts). There are private background check companies, which collect the date from the online criminal dockets of all 50 states. For a small fee, these companies allow you to perform a quick criminal background check on anyone you desire, for whatever reason.
It is sometimes possible to expunge certain charges from your record. For example, if you have a summary offense conviction, which is at least five years old, such convictions can be expunged under certain circumstances. Also, if you have been found not guilty of an offense, you can always have the charge expunged. If you have had certain charges withdrawn pursuant to a plea agreement, you may be able to have the withdrawn charges expunged as well.
Because it is so easy to discover a criminal record these days, it is more important than eve rot avoid a criminal conviction. If you have been charged with a crime or are under investigation, you must consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
Matt McClenahen is a lawyer, who practices criminal law in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University.