The myth of a one-stop shop for criminal records is not new to
Lawyer X. He has heard other lawyers and clients alike ask for
national criminal searches. He has even listened to expectations
that include getting such information quickly and cheaply. Lately,
he has had to debunk myths about a low-cost option known as the
National Criminal File (NCF).
X doesn't mind
explaining all of this to his friend. Contrary to popular
belief, criminal background checking is a complex type of research
and much about the field is changing.
than the FBI's National Crime Information Center
(NCIC), no truly
nationwide database of criminal records exists. Moreover, the NCIC,
available only to law enforcement and government agencies, contains
as many holes as Swiss cheese.
explains that citations for misdemeanors, for example, often escape
the FBI database. This happens because misdemeanors are filed
directly with the criminal court in the relevant jurisdiction. It is
then up to the court to send the information to the state
repository, which in turn transmits it to the FBI.
This is not a perfect process. According to a 2001 Bureau of Justice
1 problems with data quality,
such as accuracy,
completeness and timeliness. These include the time it takes
some states to transmit disposition data to the FBI, backlogs of
arrest data and disposition data with no link to an arrest record.
These problems result,
in part, from the continued use of paper "to
report case processing information to the repositories and to the
the NCIC represents the closest thing to a national database of
criminal records in the United States. Unfortunately, lawyers and
their clients do not have access to it.
Lately, the National Criminal File, a database available in several
varieties by vendors like ChoicePoint, Rapsheets and
has entered the scene, purporting to be a viable alternative to
traditional criminal background checking. Lawyer X disagrees.
Too many gaps exist in NCF data for Lawyer X to recommend it to
clients or other lawyers as a thorough criminal background checking
tool. To the vendors' credit, they document or warn about the gaps.
But who reads the fine print?
To help M
appreciate his concern, Lawyer X takes a moment to explain criminal
record keeping. First, when an arrest results in a booking, the law
enforcement agency creates an arrest record. Next comes the filing
of charges with the appropriate criminal court. Third, if the
charges result in a conviction, which in turn results in an
incarceration, and the person goes to a federal or state prison, as
opposed to a county jail, the Federal Bureau of Prisons or state
corrections agency creates an incarceration record. Finally, the
county and state records - arrests, criminal charges and
incarcerations - go to their respective state criminal repositories.
Much of the data in the National Criminal File comes from state
corrections agencies for participating states (currently, about 35).
This means if your investigation involves a former felon,
convicted of a violent crime like rape or murder, or a repeat
offender of serious crimes, then the database may have information
about the crime. But if the subject of your research served time for
theft in a county jail, it's likely that your search of this
database won't uncover it.
Interestingly, corrections records also
often exist in free or low-cost databases available at the state
agency's Web site.
So how do you conduct a
criminal background check? First, you have to obtain identifying
information about the subject of the investigation. At a minimum,
this includes his or her full name and date of birth. A criminal
record matching only a name may belong to someone else with the same
name. Online research systems like
AutoTrackXP (ChoicePoint) or the public records databases on
help you find such identifying data.
determine where the individual has lived for the past seven years,
at a minimum. Research systems like Accurint and AutoTrackXP have
particularly good historical address data.
Then use free online resources like
Criminal Records at The Virtual
Chase, SearchSystems.net or
Public Record Sources to find available
electronic criminal record sources in the jurisdictions where the
individual has resided for the past seven years. Look for
criminal data from county and federal district courts as well as
state repositories and state corrections agencies.
Be aware, only a small percentage of criminal data is
available online. Experts estimate that only 25% of our country's
public records are available online. Criminal data makes up just a
piece of this pie.
Moreover, some government
databases -- and even some commercial research systems -- lack data
like a birth date that distinguishes one individual from another.
Many online records also lack information about the disposition of
the matter. But even though problems exist with using these online
sources, if you find matching criminal records, they should save you
time in tracking down the disposition.
Finally, to conduct a thorough criminal background investigation,
you must consult the original information source. That is, you must request a
manual search of the court's or agency's records, or do it
Those who want to conduct the
research themselves will find help from
Criminal Records Book provides information about the legal use of
criminal records. Additionally, it explains where to find records on
the county, state and federal levels. The Sourcebook to Public
Record Information (5th ed.) offers a primer on public records
research. It also contains a directory of government sources, which
provides information about the availability of public records in
each state and how to retrieve them.
if you want to hire someone to retrieve the records, BRB offers the
Public Record Retriever Network (PRRN).
PRRN is a free database of
contact information for independent researchers and local document
retrievers across the nation.
X!" Lawyer M shouts. "Wait up!"
M catches up to Lawyer X. "You remember that
criminal background check I had to do?" she asks him.
"Yeah, sure. How'd it go?"
"Boy, were you right!"
Looking smug, X replies, "And your news is?"
"Alright, wise-guy, you earned this one," M says. "But don't expect
me to shower you with roses."
anyway," X quips.
Ignoring him, M continues, "I
searched all the available online sources in Maryland for criminal
information about this guy. Then I took your advice and hired
someone to go to the county court in Baltimore because he lived in
the city for several years. Bingo! He did six months in the county
jail for theft."
"Good going," X congratulates her.
"Guess the client was happy?"
investigation, certainly. But now he has to tell his mother."
A more current report contains related statistics. See
Improving Criminal History Records for Background Checks: National
Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP), May 2003. The
Bureau of Labor Statistics has not yet updated the cited 2001