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To Catch a Thief

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published by Law Office Computing (Dec/Jan 2004) under the title, "It's Criminal." Revised to reflect resources and strategies current as of the date appearing at the end of the page.


5 March 2004. Lawyers M and X sit in a quiet restaurant eating lunch.

M says, "You know, X, I've been meaning to ask you about criminal background checks."

X looks up, interested. She continues, "A client believes that his elderly mother may be the victim of fraud. She made a $20,000 investment in a start-up company. When the client asked around about the company, he heard that the founder was a shady character. He wants to find out if there's any truth to the rumors about the guy's criminal past.

"Can you show me how to get this information online? I've heard of a national database for criminal records. Can I just run the guy's name through the database and find out?"


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).

Lawyer 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.

Other 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.

Lawyer X 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 Statistics report, 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 FBI."

Nonetheless, 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 Westlaw (CRIM-ALL), 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 Accurint, AutoTrackXP (ChoicePoint) or the public records databases on LexisNexis can help you find such identifying data.

Next, 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 yourself.

Those who want to conduct the research themselves will find help from BRB Publications. The 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.

Finally, 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.

"Hey, 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."

"I'm allergic 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?"

"With the investigation, certainly. But now he has to tell his mother."

1. 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 report.


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Created: 5 March 2004
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/criminal_records.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com