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Skillbuilding: In Search of Criminal Records

From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
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Gene F. Williams, CG, "Skillbuilding: In Search of Criminal Records," OnBoard 14 (September 2008): 17-18.

Although most of us would like to think of our ancestors as fine upstanding members of the community, there were those few who operated outside the law. Sometimes it was a minor incident and sometimes it was major. When we discover such incidents, where do we look for the records?

Legal and Court systems are complicated and their records vary depending on the time and place of the event. In the 19th century, the investigation into a crime and its outcome would most likely have been handled differently than for one which occurred in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, although it may have been handled similarly depending on the crime. Criminal and court records were recorded based on the needs, format, and technology of the pertinent era.

The information we seek may be entirely for human interest and history, especially if the perpetrator is famous. But most generally, the search is undertaken to obtain fundamental genealogical information, such as full name, date and place of birth, etc. Records may not include references to family members unless the crime involved them.

There is no simple way to go about finding criminal records. Knowing the type of crime and the place where it happened is crucial.

Case study: early twentieth century

In the late 1930s Wayne Smith spent time in jail in Quincy, Plumas County, California for writing bad checks. His wife asked the sheriff to run a background check for any prior convictions. From fingerprint comparison, the search revealed Wayne had spent eighteen months in San Quentin for armed robbery under the name of Richard Minor.

Through extensive research I learned that Richard married in 1927, had a son born in 1930, and divorced in 1932. His marriage application named his parents and listed his birth date and place.

Soon after his release from San Quentin in 1936, he applied for a Social Security number and a delayed birth certificate under a new name, Wayne Smith, the name he used for the rest of his life. In both applications he identified a set of parents and a birth date and place that were completely different from those recorded on his 1927 marriage application as Richard Minor. The delayed birth certificate application included witnesses who testified that they knew him as a child.

After learning from the Quincy sheriff that he had a juvenile record there, Wayne’s wife contacted the San Francisco Police Department to find out if he had served prison time prior to 1927. She learned that he had a significant juvenile record of crime and convictions under the name Richard Minor.

On various documents, he gave his birth as 1904 or 1907. I did not locate him in the 1910 or 1920 census in either California or Texas, where he said he was born. The person he identified as his “Minor” father did indeed exist and was a prominent doctor in Oakland, California. Living descendants of the doctor said they did not know of a Richard Minor.

I re-contacted the San Francisco Police Department which informed me that juvenile records could be accessed only by the person himself or his closest living relative. Although Wayne (Richard) died in 1981, his two daughters are living. I forwarded copies of his death certificate, the daughter’s birth certificates, his marriage certificates (first and second), and his son’s birth certificate to the department. I included an explanation of the situation, with both identities, and explained why the records were important to the family. The Department notified me that all records between 1910 and 1925 had been destroyed.

I then requested a search of the San Quentin files held at the California State Archives. The archivist located a one page copy of Richard’s record retained in the “mug file.” She informed me that the Archives had expunged the records, retaining complete information for only every tenth file; Richard’s was not among those retained. The single page was informative—it provided the same birth date and place that were listed on his first marriage certificate. The page also included his photo, incarceration date, release to probation date, and his permanent release date from San Quentin in the spring of 1936.

While browsing the San Francisco Police Department website, I discovered a listing for the archivist for department records. When I phoned he gave me the name and number for the clerk of the juvenile court. She informed me that there were indeed juvenile offense records dating back to about 1913 when Richard was a juvenile. She was willing to make a search, even though the records are filed by case number. She was quick to respond, but found no record of him.

I searched for a newspaper account of the robbery that sent him to San Quentin and located several small articles. Although they contained no clues substantial enough to provide additional direction, I learned that he was using “Eddie” as a first name during that time. Two articles stated that he was thirty four years old in 1933, putting his birth year at 1899 or 1900. His partner in the crime, who was also sent to San Quentin, was named in the articles. Additional research for living relatives of Richard’s partner may provide more information.

Today adult criminal records may easily be found on the Internet. Most state databases provide access to records from about 1980 forward for various counties and cities throughout the U.S. Some foreign countries provide similar information as well.

Juvenile records are protected and in most cases may only be accessed by the person himself or his (or her) next of kin. But in many courts, a judge who has jurisdiction can open certain juvenile records.

All states have specific laws regarding criminal records. Learning about the court system of the state, county and/or city where an event happened is crucial to finding the records. Each county has its own court system and determines access to its records. In the case of Richard “Eddie” Minor, later known as Wayne Smith, following each and every small clue will be vital to finding records that will enable me to determine his “real” identity and that of his parents since extensive research to date has failed to provide this information. Only then will I be able to trace his ancestors.

The following websites may be useful when looking for court and criminal records:


Federal Bureau of Prisons website, includes an inmate locator from 1982 to present, and a list of facilities.

Includes databases of old prison and jail records; includes Civil War prisoner search engines and execution records by state.

Selected cases online

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.

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