What the police can learn when they run a background check on your name.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 4 2007 5:53 PM

What Do the Cops Have on Me?

What turns up when a police officer punches your name into the computer.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Drew Peterson, the former Bolingbrook, Ill., police sergeant suspected of murdering his third and fourth wives, is now also under investigation for police misconduct. New evidence suggests that Peterson used official law-enforcement databases to check up on his fourth wife and her associates before she disappeared. Peterson's attorney says it was common practice for Bolingbrook police to run checks for friends and family, and to run prank names to alleviate boredom. What can the police learn about you from these database queries?

Your name and aliases; your Social Security number; where you live; when you were born; the color of your skin and eyes; any scars, tattoos, or identifying marks; your height, vision, and gender; what kind of car you drive, whether it's a stolen vehicle, and your license and plate numbers; your traffic violation history; your local, state, and federal criminal history; and your fingerprints

Local police gather this information from five main databases. A search of records from the state registration agency (called the "Department of Motor Vehicles" in most places) yields information on your car and to whom it's registered. There's another archive of driver's license records, kept in some states by the DMV and in other states by a separate licensing agency, which has facts on where you live, your driving record, and sometimes a digital copy of your license photo. Outstanding arrest warrants will show up in a third database, and a person's criminal history can be found in either the local police records or the federally operated National Crime Information Center database, which culls from local, state, and federal files. (Some police agencies also subscribe to research tools that are available to the general public, like LexisNexis and credit reporting services.)

Access to the databases works a little differently in every agency. In general, police have unrestricted access to the DMV, driver's license, and warrant databases, as well as the local police records. In some departments, the information can be obtained via Windows-based graphical user interfaces, while other offices still use DOS-like text interfaces. Either way, it works a lot like searching for a book at the library: Officers click a shortcut on their computer desktop to open a window that will let them search by name, license number, date of birth, or Social Security number, and return all matching records.

Looking up a person's federal and state criminal history is more complicated, though this also varies from local agency to agency. In some departments, officers can query the NCIC database directly from their office computers or the mobile data computer in their squad car; in others, officers must submit a formal request to their records department and sign a statement saying it's part of an ongoing investigation—and that the record will be destroyed when the investigation is over.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Maj. Robert Stack of the Lexington Division of Police in Lexington, Ky., and Tim Dees of Officer.com.

Brad Flora is founder and CEO of WindyCitizen.com.