** If You Run a Red Light, Will Everyone Know?**
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 Sacramento, introduced CriminalSearches.com, a free service to satisfy those common impulses. The site, which is supported by ads, 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, and to deal with often grim-faced legal clerks. 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.
According to Bryce Lane, president of PeopleFinders, the new site draws data directly from local courthouses and offers records of arrests and convictions in connection with everything from murder to minor infractions like blowing past a stop sign — at least for jurisdictions that include traffic violations in their criminal data. It also lets users view a map showing addresses and names of all those arrested or convicted of a crime in a specific neighborhood, and to place alerts that prompt e-mail when someone in their life gets busted or someone with a record moves in nearby.
“We are just trying to provide what’s already out there in an easier fashion, for free,” Mr. Lane said. “We think it’s pretty helpful to families.”