How to Look Up Your Criminal Record and History in California
In the state of California, people have a right to use a California warrant search to see if there is a warrant out for their arrest. These search engines and public record searches are simple to use if you know how to navigate them.
The possibility of being arrested or having a loved one arrested is a very scary one.. Because of recent law changes, this guide can help you navigate the process of using California warrant search engines.
One last note before moving on: keep in mind that how long a background check takes in California has several factors, so staying informed is critical to ensure records are received in time (or before they change).
What You Need to Know About Warrants
A lot of people think warrants are only issued in situations such as violent crimes, traffic incidents, or other criminal activity. There are actually two types of warrants: arrest warrants and bench warrants.
Most people are familiar with arrest warrants. Those that are issued after a crime has been committed. Bench warrants, on the other hand, are warrants that can surprise people who don’t usually get into any kind of trouble ,or warrants based on frequent interaction in and out of the court system. Before conducting a California warrant search, there are a few things to know before searching your records.
Arrest vs Bench
Arrest warrants are issued when someone is believed to have broken the law or to have been a part of committing a crime. Examples of activities that would lead to this kind of warrant would be criminal activity such as burglary, assault, vandalism, and other violations.
Thanks to the news, to crime drama and law enforcement procedural shows on TV, as well as a general understanding in society, arrest warrants have become relatively obvious for the most part. People know that you can’t attack other people or take what isn’t yours, or there will be consequences in a societal sense, according to the justice system.
You can be arrested immediately when someone catches you committing a crime, or you can be arrested later when the district attorney or police department has gathered enough evidence to get a warrant issued. It’s when it’s not immediate that you’ll need to know how to search the California criminal records system.1
Bench warrants are issued when a person is believed to be “in contempt of the Court,” named so because they’re issued by the Bench, or the judge presiding over a court case. The activities that can lead to getting issued a bench warrant are much different than getting an arrest warrant, but in the end, it’s still an active warrant and the police are still going to arrest you if they have contact with you.
Being “in contempt” is still against the law, and so the activities that lead to it are still illegal. That’s important to know, since they don’t have “arrest” in their name even though you’re still likely to end up arrested if you don’t take care of the warrant by seeking legal counsel or turning yourself in to the authorities.
Activities that can lead to bench warrants include missing jury duty, failing to appear for a court date or a hearing, or appearing as part of a trial, failing to pay a traffic ticket, child support, or restitution, and disobeying any court order, among other things.
You could also have a bench warrant issued by a judge for disrupting court proceedings, which would place you “in contempt.” In that case, the bailiffs in the court room will take you to the jail and process you.
Bench warrants will show up in your records, which is why using a California warrant search guide can be beneficial.2
Once a warrant is issued in any state, California or otherwise, the warrant is then entered into databases accessible by law enforcement nationally, connected through the Department of Justice.2 This includes both bench warrants and arrest warrants.
No matter whether someone has skipped a court hearing or stolen a car, if they are pulled over by an officer, involved in some kind of incident with law enforcement, or interact with law enforcement anywhere in the United States, that warrant is going to come up.
Recent changes to the law in California have altered the information employers and other professionals can see on a background check. The new 2021 California background check law prohibits date of birth or driver’s license numbers being utilized to search criminal court records.
How Do I Check if I Have a Warrant in California?
Discovering whether you have an active warrant on you in California looks a little complex especially if you are familiar with how background checks work, but it’s actually pretty easy.
In order to search and see if you have a warrant out for your arrest, you’re going to need to know some personal information. This should be the easy part, especially if you’re looking for yourself, but can be really difficult if you’re looking to see if someone else has a warrant out in California.
The basic information that you’ll need for any California warrant search is the person’s name and the person’s date of birth. In many cases, you’ll probably need even more information than that, such as the person’s address (or at least their latest), and some other details. While you can use the California warrant search databases with only a name, more information will make going through results easier.
For example, if you go to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to find the arrest records of someone as common as John Smith, you’re going to need to know his birthday or a middle name, or you’re going to be drowning in results. Even when you’re searching for yourself, some of these search engines are very clunky and hard to organize, so you may be looking for an entry that may or may not exist for a long time if your name is common.
The Different Ways of Obtaining Records: The County Level
The first level of a California warrant search is at the county level. If you know what county may have issued the warrant, the search will be a lot easier, thanks to a smaller pool of results.
Was your warrant issued in San Diego County? All you have to do is visit the website for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, head to their arrest warrant page, and search for your name. It’s free of charge and easy to use.3 Many counties in California have websites set up just like this one, however, there are also plenty that don’t.
The Search For Your Answer Isn’t Always Easy or Free
For those who either can’t find their county’s website or for people whose warrants are in counties that don’t have a searchable database, such as in Los Angeles County, there are additional search options.
In the case of Los Angeles, the Sheriff’s Department website instructs users to go to their local police department or sheriff’s station to have a search conducted.8
Many lawyers have their own search engines, which can be handy if you’re also going to be looking for representation, but there will likely be charges for this search.2
Other websites will seem free at first, but then tell you to pay a one-time charge or pay for a “trial” that will be difficult or bothersome to cancel later.4 These are third-party websites that don’t have the same access to government and law enforcement resources, so there’s also a good chance they’re just not going to be accurate or even recent.
While there are some actual free ways to find parts of a free criminal background check, you’ll quickly discover that most will have incomplete information, and they’ll also go outside of California. While this may be good for some people, others may want to keep it a little closer to home.6
Obtaining Your Records at the Court Level
If you’re looking for accurate information on whether or not you have a warrant issued in a county that doesn’t have a warrant search easily accessible, use a search engine for the Superior Court of the area.
The example above used Los Angeles County to show that some sheriff’s offices don’t offer an online California warrant search. If you’re looking for an L.A. County Warrant Search, you’re going to have to go above the Sheriff’s Department to the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Unless you visit a local sheriff’s station, for superior court records, you’ll need to search multiple areas, including criminal, traffic, family, and other cases. Use “Defendant Name” or even just “Name” to proceed through each section. There are usually fees involved for these sorts of public records searches, including warrant searches.5
Some of the counties in California are not as easy to to work with as other counties, so it will be difficult to check to see if you have a search warrant in those counties without paying a fee or just walking into a police precinct or sheriff’s department and asking them to check for you (as it says on the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department website).
If You Still Have Trouble Getting Your Records
If you still have trouble with your search, you can always pay to get a background check done on yourself. This will show active warrants as well as your criminal record – a “background check” as it is typically called is actually a “criminal records history report.”
In some counties and other locations, there are fees for public records with just no way around it. Paying for the full California criminal records search can be rewarding, though, as you’ll not only get your active warrants, but a lot of other information. What shows up on a background check can get you hired, fired, evicted, and more (depending on various factors) so, it may be beneficial to get the full report.
Wait, How Public Are These Records?
They are public. Anyone can gain access to this sort of criminal information. That said, future employers can see, to some extent, what your criminal history is like on your public records. So it’s pretty handy to know what shows up, especially if you’re looking at a career in something like teaching, nursing, law enforcement, or another job that’s going to need an extensive look at the information that can come up in your past.
[perhaps a graphic from the article on our site that shows what shows up in a background check? Could also have a handy dandy link]
The safest and most reliable place to do a background check on yourself is going to be through the Attorney General’s website. There, you can pay $25, or even apply for a fee waiver, to do a fingerprint background check on yourself. The fingerprints are done through LiveScan, and the directions on how to do them is provided on the website.
Locations to get fingerprints done are also provided, and they’re not all law enforcement locations. It’s easy to do as a current resident of California, and you’ll have your criminal history in your hands in no time.
Even if you used to live in California, but you’re don’t anymore, you can still request your own California criminal records. When requesting your records from an address outside of California, you’ll have to send in a manual fingerprint card through the mail instead, but that’s the only real difference.
The fee is the same, taken by check or money order sent with the fingerprint card, and then you just wait for your criminal records to be sent back to you. That’s it!
This Record is Wrong, and It’s Public!
After you have received and gone over your records, you can see if you have an active warrant, you check on how accurate your records are, and you can even challenge what’s on your public criminal history records.
You’ll be sent some forms with your records in order to review them, which you can then use to state your case about why you believe your records are inaccurate or incomplete in some way. When you mail the forms back, you’ll also need to include proof of your assertions.
Just like when requesting your records, you may see a longer turnaround time, due to both the delay in the mailing system and the sheer amount of influx that the justice system, records requests, and courts receive on a daily basis. Remember you can always contact the courts and see how your specific case is going, especially if you write down specific numbers pertaining to that case.7
If you’d rather work through a third party website that isn’t tied to California’s justice system, there is that option. It bears repeating, though, that they may not have accurate or recent information that can be relied on. These sites are growing in popularity due to the instant gratification of getting the information the minute your card clears. However, they also aren’t necessarily the safest way to get your information.
Find What You Were Looking For?
A big state like California has to have some way of helping people stay informed. The California Public Records Act is another attempt to do that, by allowing everyone access to their own records, including whether or not they have active warrants.
While it can take time, warrant searches (for search warrants) can certainly be made easier by understanding what you’re looking for and exactly where to look. From arrest warrants to Superior Court searches all the way to criminal history checks and tips for wading through your results, this guide covers everything you need to know the next time you need to do a California warrant search.