Criminal Searches Uncovered, Part 1: Criminal Record Basics

Criminal Searches Uncovered, Part 1: Criminal Record Basics
Senior Vice President of Operations

At PreCheck, we’re often asked about criminal record searches whether it be how they are obtained, what coverage they offer the clients we work with day in and day out, and other burning questions.  Our clients aren’t alone; we know the world of criminal records can be a confusing one!  Today (and as part of an ongoing series) we hope to set the record straight and shed some light on this mystical topic by sharing a few basics regarding criminal record searches.  Other related topics coming up in this series will be fingerprinting, as well as the threats that currently exist to criminal record reporting.

Types of Criminal Searches

Criminal record searches come in a wide variety of type and scope. The most often requested searches for the purpose of this blog are County level, State level, National and Federal searches. It should be noted that in the healthcare industry the terminology "primary source" holds great importance especially in light of certain accreditation programs. Primary source speaks to the original source of information, and when considering criminal records, the primary source is in most case the County level record. The charge and documentation often begins within the County Courthouse, and consequently, contains a high level of detail.

Statewide searches are sometimes utilized to supplement County level searches, or in some areas a Statewide search might be known to be an equally detailed search in comparison with the Counties within that state. It is important to understand that there is no enforcement mechanism for ensuring how often a county shares their criminal record information (and any updates after their original filing) with their home state. This also holds true for what details are shared, as a record located at a County Courthouse can have more detail than what is shared with their state.

National searches (aka National Criminal Database Searches) are a term used that can be exceptionally confusing. For the record, there is no single database that reflects real-time up to date county level information for all counties across the country. Not even the FBI's database offers this. In a 2006 report from the Attorney General regarding criminal history background checks, it was stated that the FBI's repository known as the Interstate Identification Index (III or "Triple I") system, although quite comprehensive, was "missing final disposition information for approximately 50 percent of its records." Acknowledging this statement, it stands to reason that research would still be required at a primary source or County level to confirm current status of records located without disposition to ensure reportability under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. This is not to discredit the value of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) or the III. The NCIC is a great tool for those who have access to it, and for our clients who have access to the NCIC database, we recommend a blended approach of using County level searches along with the NCIC.

Federal criminal searches are performed at the Federal Court level. They are often utilized on background checks for candidates being considered for executive level positions, those who may handle sensitive data or financial information. Criminal records filed at federal district courts will not be found if only county or statewide searches are conducted.

Methods of Performing Criminal Searches

Not only are there many types of searches, but how they are performed can vary as well. County level criminal searches may be performed at public access terminals provided right inside the courthouse, or may require a search request being provided directly to a court clerk. Some Counties will offer online searches of their system. At a minimum, searches are conducted by name and date of birth to establish a match. Common names would require additional unique identifiers to confirm a record match. Due to privacy concerns, most criminal records do not have a social security number associated with them, so searching by SSN is not an option.

Statewide searches are performed online through a website provided by the state, or if required by a particular statute, there may be a specific process for how someone approved with access submit their inquiry for a statewide search.

National criminal database searches are often done online through a site hosted by the data aggregator.

Federal court searches may be performed by using a public access website service provided by the United States Judiciary. Searching can be done in a limited number of ways, including case number and name. Federal court records are not searchable by SSN, however, which can create quite a challenge when searching a common name. Imagine how many possible matches one might find for "John Smith."

How Long does a Criminal Record Search Take?

One of the more popular questions received in our industry concerns how long it will take to complete a criminal search. So, what's the answer? I know our readers are on the edge of their seats... You know the joke where when asked to choose between two things someone simply responds with "Yes?" Criminal search turnaround time is a lot like that punch line—confusing, unclear, and in most cases, not funny.

Full disclosure is important, however, and it's in that vein that we must tell you it really can vary across jurisdictions. Why? A number of reasons contribute to turnaround time. Accessibility of the information, for example—is it readily available to the public at a terminal onsite at the courthouse or via a website hosted online by the court? Does the court require search requests to be submitted in person? And are you "at the mercy of the court" and must simply wait indefinitely for the clerk to conduct the search him or herself? If the search is made or performed in person on site at a courthouse, is that courthouse open five days a week? Be aware, streamlined budgets and furloughs are a reality that many states and counties face and, in turn, can impact how quickly a result can be received.

Another factor to consider that will impact turnaround time would be the potential research required to confirm or rule out a possible match. In discussing the methods for performing searches you'll recall the point made that not all records contain a SSN, one of the identifiers thought to be most unique to an individual outside of fingerprints. When the only search filter criteria are Name and Date of Birth, and you receive multiple possible matches, additional work is required to ensure that you have an accurate record information. That work involves trying to locate additional identifiers to positively confirm or clear a record. When identifiers are limited, a public records investigator must be resourceful in order to uncover relevant information necessary to resolve a search.

These are some of the most common contributing factors to turnaround time, and the good news is that one can see instant or same day results in those places where access is provided to the public by website or terminal. The bad news is that one can also experience longer wait times for results certain areas of the country (greetings to our San Luis Obispo, CA readers!). If there's ever a particular area that you're curious about, give us a call and we'll be happy to advise on expected turnaround time.

I hope you've enjoyed this first installment of our Criminal Searches blog series. For our more advanced readers who are already familiar with the Criminal Records Search basics just covered, I do hope you'll come back as we cover other topics.

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