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Thursday, April 11, 2013

"National" record checks?

We are always asked about conducting national criminal record checks. This request is difficult to explain because most people’s perception of the criminal justice system is marred by television. Simply put, there is no “national” database that houses criminal records. Records of arrests and adjudications are kept at the local courthouses and county jurisdictions. The closest to any semblance of a national database is the FBI’s fingerprint database, which was introduced in 1924. However, the FBI system is a repository of fingerprints submitted by law enforcement used for identification purposes, not a criminal record database. Criminal records are associated with the fingerprint files and one can obtain someone’s criminal record, but only to the extent that the data is submitted. The computer adage, garbage in-garbage out applies here.
The FBI is fed fingerprints by law enforcement. If a law enforcement agency doesn’t submit fingerprints on a particular individual or at all, then there is no record. If the fingerprints are unreadable, then there is no record. The submission of the fingerprints also includes the criminal charges associated with why the individual was arrested. This is the part that makes up the criminal record database. This part can be flawed also. If the fingerprints were not submitted each and every time the person is arrested, then there would be gaps in the person’s history. Additionally, only the arrest charges are submitted with the fingerprints, not the disposition of the case. So, that part is missing from the records.
            This is not to say that the FBI fingerprint system is not the best in the world, which it is, and the records are highly reliable. The point being made is that the fingerprint system being used for criminal record checks does have holes. Further, only law enforcement has access.
Conducting a national background check in private industry would be better said as a “nationwide” check. States do a fair job of collecting data from within the state and compiling the data in one repository. However, there is, again, the submission issue. Not all counties, cities, or towns submit arrest and conviction data to the State.
There are data mining services that will search all of the available State and County records and compile the results in to one report. The word “available” is used because not all states and counties make their records accessible to free public inspection. Additional fees and access are needed. More holes in the record search process.
Even with the use of fingerprints, state and county records should be researched to obtain a thorough background check. Even after these computer searches are made and records are found does not mean that what you have is 100% accurate. Your search needs to be verified through actual court records. Which are maintained in the courthouses.
Then you have the Federal judicial system, which is separate from all others. Records are housed in this system’s database as well and require separate searches from all the others. Federal searches are not usually included in most pay services.
Sometimes the records that are received from one source are incomplete, but another source has different information from the same incident. In this case the information from both sources needs to be verified and combined.
To obtain a thorough picture of a person’s criminal past, all levels of government entities maintaining criminal records should be searched. Additionally, the records need to be associated with the offender. This is where the use of fingerprints to ensure the identity of the person associated with the record is helpful. If not through fingerprints, then matches on name and numerical identifiers have to be used to verify the record is associated with the person.
Expunged records are another issue and topic for another blog. Let’s just say that, as with all legal terms, expunged has different definitions in different States; meaning that records of “expunged” cases can be found in the digital world.
Criminal records are just one part of a detailed background check. As you can see, it is not as easy as typing in a person’s name and getting back a complete report of criminal history. To be accurate and completed properly, a lot of searching and analysis goes into the process.