Do you want to find out more about your next door neighbor? Considering accepting a date but want to make sure your potential suitor isn’t a weirdo? Worried about your new friend’s erratic behavior? While in the past it was very difficult to obtain criminal conviction records without traveling to courthouses and getting past law clerks, makes searching a whole lot easier. The free site, introduced last month, archives criminal records of all 50 states and 3,500 counties in the United States. Since the site is supported by advertisements, all users need to do is type in the name of the object of their curiosity and any criminal records will immediately be displayed.

There are obvious benefits to a service like this. For example, the site allows you search within particular neighborhoods to find the names and addresses of all those who have been arrested or convicted in that area. This may be helpful to families with small children who are worried about letting their kids wander the neighborhood freely. Also, users can opt to receive email alerts whenever someone they know gets in trouble or someone who has been in trouble in the past moves into their vicinity.

But do the benefits outweigh the potential criticisms of a service like this? First, if you don’t know the birth date and address of the person you’re searching for, you may be reading the results of a different person with the same name. There are thousands of people named “Jason Smith” out there. The one you’re searching for may not really have a drug-in-possession charge. Second, as I quickly found while conducting my own searches, many states list traffic violations as criminal offenses, so you may be surprised to find yourself listed in this compilation of criminals for that speeding ticket you got in your teens while driving through Arizona.

Also, criminals who were hoping to work hard to clean up their reputation and not be haunted by misdeeds committed decades ago will no longer be able to do so. This service may make it very difficult for such persons to get a job, considering how accessible the service is to potential employers. Moreover, while the Federal Rules of Evidence explicitly prohibit the introduction into evidence of certain criminal records of criminal defendants, nothing is stopping jurors from using this site to look it up and judge accordingly.

Arguably, a person can’t really criticize a site like this because the information has always been available to the public, including jurors. However, most of the services providing it required credit card and personal identification information, which may have served as a deterrent. And few people have the time or motivation it takes to travel to court to get these records. The quick, easy, free availability of this information inevitably leads to the question of whether the American public will ever draw a line and say, “too much information.” While that time is not yet here, as we continue to make more and more personal information available to anyone who is looking for it online, that day soon may be.

— DeNae Thomas

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