Access criminal records in Washington state
There are two primary ways of accessing criminal records in Washington state:
Washington State Patrol records
Washington State Patrol (WSP), by statute, is the statewide repository for criminal records. RCW 43.43.500; RCW 43.43.700. It collects and stores criminal case file information from agencies across the state. Case files include a wide variety of information, including name, date of birth, vitals (height/weight), the nature of the charge, date/time arrested, etc. WSP also updates its records to reflect the ultimate disposition of the incident (guilty, not guilty, dismissed, etc.).
However, the Washington State Criminal Records Privacy Act limits WSP as to what kind of information it can share and with whom. RCW 10.97.050. For incidents that resulted in a conviction, or for incidents that occurred within the last twelve months where the case is still ongoing without a conviction, WSP may disseminate information to the public without restriction. RCW 10.97.050(1), (2). To that end, WSP runs a website where people can look up anyone’s Washington state criminal history by paying twelve dollars per search. That site is called the Washington Access To Criminal History, or WATCH. WSP WATCH reports incidents that resulted in a conviction until expunged. You can read more about expunging your misdemeanor, felony, or juvenile record. Criminal records about an incident that did not result in a conviction are “nonconviction data.” RCW 10.97.030(2). Nonconviction data is not public, may be shared only in very limited circumstances, and is not disseminated through WATCH. RCW 10.97.050(3)-(6).
A conviction occurs any time the court enters a finding of guilt, whether by way of plea or verdict. A deferred sentence continues to act as a conviction for reporting purposes even if subsequently dismissed. RCW 10.97.030(4).
Washington state courts records
Once charged, the court creates a new case file about the charge(s) and assigns a cause number. This case file consists of the charging document and other routine documents that are necessary for court proceedings such as the declaration of probable cause, continuance forms, trial setting documents, motions, speedy trial waivers, etc. At the end of the case, the court creates the most significant record by entering an order finding you guilty, not guilty, or dismissing the charges. According to article I, section 10 of the Washington state constitution, “[j]ustice in all cases shall be administered openly,” meaning that Washington state court records are public, and anyone may access and view them.
Washington state courts store information on every criminal case in something called the Judicial Information System (JIS), which is an electronic database. RCW 2.68. JIS contains the nature of the charge, the name, address, phone number, and date of birth of the defendant, a docket of events that occurred in the case, and other pertinent information. This database is text-only; courts store actual documents in a variety of ways, including paper, digital, and microfiche.
The JIS system is available to the public for home use via a program called JIS-Link, which allows users to search statewide court records and access dockets and other text-only information for each case. The system holds records of all criminal court proceedings, regardless of the outcome of the case. Thus, court records are publicly accessible even if the judge finds you not guilty, dismisses the charges, or you later vacate the conviction. The only exception is if you qualify to seal your juvenile record.