When I started out reporting 25 years ago, finding background information on a suspect could certainly wear out the shoe leather. That's changed over the years, but never so dramatically as over the last five years.
From my understanding, Minnesota is certainly one of the better states in terms of our open records laws and sharing data. By comparison, Texas is a closed record state and if you want to know if someone has a conviction you have to go to the county courthouse and pull the record. It's a crime for someone to give you the information over the phone. That's Texas.
Here in Minnesota, government officials have made a noble effort to put criminal data on line. It's an IT nightmare given the different kinds of data bases for courts, police, and corrections.
So here are my favorite places to go when I'm looking for general information on a suspect along with some comments about the sites. Happy sleuthing.
The Minnesota Court System is a great starting point if you just have a name. The key is it gives you a date of birth, and from there you're off to the races. A cautionary note, some of the counties in greater Minnesota have had difficulty getting old cases into the database, and even with the metro counties, there can be a significant time delay in updating the records. If you want to nail something down conclusively, nothing beats a trip to the local courthouse.
BUREAU OF CRIMINAL APPREHENSION
I've had mixed results with the BCA site. I've found many of the records are incomplete and don't include major convictions (like, for murder). It also only has convictions. If someone was found not guilty, or charges were dismissed, you won't find it here. You'd think the BCA public data base would be the gold standard. It's not. You also need a date of birth. If you truly need to nail something down (and I often do), I'd rely on the courts.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
Quite simply, one of the best and most efficient sites around. If you're looking for an offender in the prison system, they have a great search engine that will tell you what offense they're locked up for and their scheduled release date. Looking for Level III sex offenders in your area: find them by name, county, city, or zip code. Note: This won't tell you about all sex offenders, but only those considered most dangerous and likely to re-offend.