DIY Thursday: Background checks

If I learned anything from my years as a crime and courts reporter, it’s that there are a lot of people out there who could hurt you. Not just “hurt” as in breaking your heart — “hurt” as in breaking your arm, leg, face, life, etc.


A lot of people don’t know this, but there are thousands of public records online that can help you determine if you want to open your heart and life to somebody before it’s too late and you’ve got the feels. Learning how to look up someone’s criminal record started off as a way to help me do my job as a reporter but turned into a great way to help me (and others) dodge some seedy dates.

Note: Some may view this as a violation of privacy or ruining the mystery of getting to know somebody. If that is your view, this post isn’t for you and that’s OK.

Also: *trigger warning* rape, murder, violence.

So, how does it work? First off, its important for me to state I can only speak to Washington State records as that is where I have the most experience. I’d assume other states (hopefully) operate similarly. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below or shoot me an email if you want any guidance. I’m a big proponent of empowering people to keep themselves safe.

The More You Know — right? (please tell me someone got that reference…)

Step One: Do a google search. Seriously. First name, last name, city or state of residence. This works even better if you have a middle initial. Add things like “jail roster” or “suspect” to pull up potential news articles.

Next: Plug their name into the Washington Courts database to see if there is a list of cases filed by/against them. Again, this is better if you have a middle initial. Below is a screengrab of someone I used to report about frequently at my second newspaper gig.

Screen Shot 2018-02-01 at 6.50.44 AM

In the example above, I erased the person’s name but you can see they are listed as the defendant in more than 20 cases in various district courts. District court is where small claims, traffic tickets, misdemeanors, and other relatively minor cases are filed. When you’re the defendant, it means something has been filed against you. Some notes on the case numbers:

  • PCR = Port Angeles Criminal case
  • CCR = County Criminal case
  • PIN = Port Angeles Infraction (non-criminal) case

This is standard for the most part across cities and counties. If there’s a “C” in there it’s a criminal case and if it’s an “IN” or “I” it’s a non-criminal infraction such as a speeding ticket.

Most district court records are not viewable online and you have to go to the court office to see them. So, take a look at the list above and decide for yourself if you want to invite this person into your life or go into the office and read up, or pass.

What about Superior Court? I’m glad you asked! Superior Court is where serious criminal cases are filed and also is the venue in some jurisdictions for restraining orders, family court, and larger lawsuits.

superior court example

In this example, you’ll see this person is the defendant in case 09-1-00904-3. Dissecting the case number tells me this case was filed in 2009 (hence the 09) and is a felony criminal case (the 1). This person is also the respondent in a civil/restraining order case (that’s what 2 means) and the petitioner in a family court case (3 indicates family court like custody, child support, divorce). Respondent means someone filed against you and petitioner means you were the one to file against someone else.

Often, you can click into the person’s name or “Available” to get a more detailed look at the case. See below.


These are the details in one of the Superior Court cases involving the person above. You can see the prosecutor filed a motion for arrest and determination of probable cause, which means, “We think this person did this thing based on this evidence and should be arrested and stand trial for it.” This is usually a combination of police reports, witness accounts, and other details about the incident in question. A judge must agree that there is enough evidence to establish this person probably did this thing and sign the order before the person can be arrested and charged. In this case, the person was arrested, charged with third-degree rape, and given specific conditions of release to follow if they were bailed out of jail. Sometimes that means turning in your guns, abstaining from alcohol, or promising to stay in the county/state and not flee. Also, the victim in this case was given a protection order against this person. This generally means no contact — not even through a friend of a friend — and you must stay the hell away.

But what if I can’t dig in this far to see the records? There’s more! Try searching the Washington State Digital Archives. You can find birth records, death records, divorce records, and court records here.

sbasic search

While not all counties have records available online, Snohomish County does. For this example, I looked up the name of a person facing murder charges in the Washington State Courts database and plugged the case number in here. The archive pulls up a list of documents filed in a case and gives you the option to preview or pay to view the documents.

snohomish county

Other ways to search: Go to your county court website and look for “court records” or “clerk of the court.” Sometimes you can access the database online and sometimes you have to request access to records — especially if they are sensitive in nature such as sexual assault protection orders.

Hopefully this is useful for you all. I know it is useful for me.


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