Criminal History Records Check
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Popular television programs and Hollywood movies make it seem easy to retrieve the criminal history of an individual. Simply log into a computer database, punch a few buttons, and a few seconds later the complete criminal history and mug shot of the individual appear on the computer screen in front of you.
Unfortunately, this is far from reality. The truth is there currently is no nationwide up-to-date repository of criminal history records available to most employers or the general public. Though the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) maintains the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, it can only be accessed by law enforcement agencies and by employers in specific industries mandated by federal and state law.
Searches of the NCIC require fingerprints, generally take several months to process, and the results and dispositions of the cases (if they exist here at all) are often missing. It is estimated that less than half of serious crimes are entered in the NCIC database.
In reality, searches for criminal history records must be conducted at the various jurisdictions that exist throughout the United States where arrest and conviction records are initiated and/or compiled. The following is a brief description of those jurisdictions, and what type of information may be available.
Federal District Searches
There are 91 federal district courts in the United States. Some of the smaller and less populous states contain only one federal district court while others could have as many as four. These jurisdictions contain case histories of criminal charges brought against individuals by the federal government itself. Federal records typically involve white-collar crime, mail fraud, interstate trafficking, bank robbery, and civil rights violations. The information that is released can be sketchy at times and many older files are archived at different hard-to-access regional locations. These district court records are not shared between districts, and the records are not "passed down" to the state or county jurisdictions.
All states have a central state agency whose purpose is to collect criminal record information from state police and the court system. Suffice it to say, though, that the fair employment laws of our 50 states are widely divergent as they pertain to arrest and conviction records. In some states, access to this information is reserved solely for law enforcement agencies. Other states have severely restrictive policies and require extensive release forms and/or require the use of fingerprints—resulting in tremendous delays in obtaining the desired information. Some states will only release felony convictions and omit misdemeanor records, restrict the release of data to a limited number of years, or will not show pending cases. And to top it off, there are many stories of records not making it from the many state and county courthouses to the centralized record center—calling into question the reliability of the repository data. Nonetheless, the benefit of statewide breadth, as opposed to county searches, may outweigh some of the drawbacks. As with federal searches, state name-based searches are limited to the state in which the search is conducted and do not reveal criminal records from other states. Refer to our Public Records Fee Schedule for a list of the statewide searches currently available to us.
Every state is divided into multiple county level court jurisdictions. A total of 3,072 of these exist across the United States—all of which can be accessed. In those states where statewide records are unavailable or unreliable, checking criminal records at the county level is a must. County sites provide the most complete, accurate, and up-to-date information concerning cases and adjudication from their own courts. Turnaround times are also generally much quicker with results received in days rather than weeks or months. It is also possible in many counties to actually retrieve copies of case documents and transcripts to provide further insight into the details surrounding a criminal offense. This option doesn't exist at most federal or state jurisdictions. As with federal and state searches, county name-based searches are limited to the county in which the search is conducted and do not reveal criminal records from other counties.
The state repository and county-by-county methods are not true alternatives to proper due diligence. Each has strengths the other cannot duplicate. Each has limitations only the other can solve. To be as accurate and complete as possible, both methods of research should be used whenever possible and federal district searches should be added for key positions of trust, as you so determine.