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National Criminal Background Checks: Myths, Realities & Resources


Jackie Walters is a Washington, D.C. area law librarian.


   Originally published in Law Library Lights, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Spring 2007). Law Library Lights is published by the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, DC (LLSDC).

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Revised 07 November 2007. Anyone who has been asked to conduct a "national criminal background check" knows the sinking feeling that comes from facing the requestor's confident assumption that such a requestis reasonable, possible, inexpensive, and fast. When a Google search brings up dozens of hits containing words like comprehensive, instant results, free, and all 50 states, it is easy to see where that confident assumption comes from. Where to start to explain all the caveats, cautions, costs, and prohibitions?


No central repository exists for federal, state, and local ... criminal records.


Seven facts contradict the myth that a national criminal background check is even possible.

No central repository exists for federal, state, and local (i.e., county, parish, municipal, etc.) criminal records.



Not all states have automated systems for collecting data from reporting agencies and local jurisdictions. As of December 31, 2003, 49 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had automated criminal history information systems, but only 25 of these were fully automated.The content, accuracy, quality and timeliness ofthe data vary considerably among the states.



No federal law imposes standards for collecting, indexing, searching, and using criminal record data. Among the 50 states, standards vary for collecting the four types of criminal records -- arrest, criminal court (federal, state and local), corrections (federal, state and local), and state criminal repository records.



On-site searches can be costly. Conductingan on-site county-level criminal court search in every location where an individual has lived for the previous seven years (the investigation industry's standard time frame) could be prohibitively expensive.



States are increasingly restricting personally identifying data in original public records. Responding to concerns about privacy issues and identity theft, states are passing laws restricting the inclusion of personally identifying data, such as birth dates and Social Security numbers, in public records. Researchers and commercial vendors will no longer be able to link data across record types (judgments, liens, tax, property, etc.) using personal identifiers to verify identity and establish relationships.



A variety of federal and state privacy statutes limit permissible use of and/or access to data on individuals. Any end user can purchase a search from a proprietary vendor or a government-maintained Web site. However, users are responsible for using the data in accordance with permissible purposes as defined by several federal statutes, notably the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) (15 USC § 1681), the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (15 USC §§ 6801-6809), the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (18 USC §§2721-2725), the Privacy Act of 1974 (5 USC §552a), and corresponding state statutes. The most commonly-listed permissible purposes are pre- screening, consumer-driven transactions, fraud detection, and law enforcement. To insure compliance, some companies, such as ChoicePoint and Accurint (Lexis), credential end users for certain products before issuing a subscriber agreement.



So-called "national" databases are inaccessible to non-governmental users. The National Crime Information Center is maintained by the FBI and limited by federal law to law enforcement agencies. Similarly, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is also maintained by the FBI to provide information on people desiring to purchase firearms. Access is restricted to agencies authorized by the FBI.

Steps & Resources for Conducting a "National" Criminal Background Search


Get as much information as possible on the subject and try to ascertain the permissible use.

The essential first step in any background investigation is to find the right person. Start with name (including middle name or initial, aliases, maiden, alternate spellings, and nicknames), date of birth, Social Security Number, any known addresses, names of family members, occupation, even skills and hobbies.




Find the right person and their addresses for at least the last seven years. Before searching criminal records, know who you are looking for. A good standard is to have at least two "unique identifiers," one of which should be a date of birth.

Unless you have reason to believe the individual has moved around, searching by state may be most efficient and cost-effective. While the combined public records databases in Lexis and Westlaw make broad searching efficient and relatively inexpensive, many factors—a common name, lack of unique identifiers, variable spellings, etc.—could produce results that are time-consuming to sort and may not identify the right person. Taking the time to find the most suitable database may save time and money, as could consulting the Information and Scope notes to ascertain what data is included and what restrictions apply. Restrictions can include statutory prohibitions on updating files with current data (military locator and motor vehicle records, for example). Depending on one's permissible use, certain sources may not be made available for the search (voter registration or motor vehicle records, for example).

Lexis and Westlaw products produce comprehensive reports that compile data from multiple sources and use unique identifiers to link an individual to various types of available data, such as adverse filings, real property records, and motor vehicle and drivers' license records. Westlaw's Person Profile Report (P-PROFILE) is intended to be "an inclusive and comprehensive starting point" for compiling information on a person. Transactional pricing applies; a name search is $35, which is then applied to the $75 for a Profile Report if one is ordered. LexisNexis® SmartLinx™ is accessible under the Public Records tab. A full comprehensive report costs $105 (see http://www.lexisnexis.com/literature/pdfs/LO17161-0.pdf for a sample report) Since these resources all contain non-public data, they require permissible use designations.

Other one-stop sources for personal information reports include Accurint and ChoicePoint. Accurint®, a LexisNexis product that requires a separate subscriber agreement, uses public records and non-public information to compile information on individuals, including linking them to businesses and workplaces, in a variety of report formats. A comprehensive report costs $15. AutoTrackXP®, a product of ChoicePoint, Inc., requires that subscribers (including law firms) be credentialed. AutoTrackXP has a Web-based public records search tool that retrieves an immediate report and on-demand searching, for which ChoicePoint assigns an investigator to conduct on-site searching in a particular jurisdiction (for a sample report, see ( http://www.choicepoint.com/sample_rpts/AutoTrackXP.pdf).




Search criminal records resources. Professional investigators start locally and expand globally. Going back through seven years of addresses is the industry standard for professional investors. A good starting point is to search criminal dockets through Lexis or Westlaw, CourtLink or CourtExpress, Legal Dockets Online, or the U.S. Party/Case Index on PACER. On a nationwide basis, these resources cover all but a few federal courts, many state courts and some local courts. Coverage varies by vendor.

Good Web Sites for Locating Web-based Resources

VirtualChase.com, maintained by the law firm of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP, has descriptions and links to free online resources for public records and criminal records research.



SearchSystems.net organizes public records by topic and jurisdiction. Within those areas, it provides free access to information about public records resources. Users may subscribe to SearchSystems Premium service or DirectPass to pay for information from those sources charging fees. This site is a good place to look to see what coverage is available. Delving into Birth and Marriage records, for example, reveals that, for many counties available, the records stop before the mid-20th century.



Public Record Sources, powered by BRB Publications, provides a comprehensive list of free public record sites, including those for finding criminal records. Entries are specific and often include information about the source, including fees for access and/or reports, search tips, date coverage, etc.



Public Records Online Searches is a source for locating public records of all kinds at the national and state level. Although this directory is free, the listed resources may not be.

To be comprehensive, a researcher should search resources from more than one directory. Although the distinction appears to be that Public Records Sources is a directory of free sites and Public Records Online Searches is a directory that includes fee-based sites, limiting a search based on that distinction has misleading results. For example, Cambria County, PA does not appear in the Pennsylvania listing under Public Record Sources, but it does under Public Records Online Searches -- with access to information on the inmate population, a sex offender registry, and court dockets, some of which appears to be free to the public.

Vendors like Legal Dockets Online, Lexis, and Westlaw sell the convenience and efficiency of conducting broad searches across several types of criminal records. Dozens of Web-based proprietary vendors purport to provide nationwide or worldwide comprehensive searches through public records and to use the same records government agencies use. The truth is that there are a few commercial data aggregators compiling data from public records (without editing) and selling that data to proprietary vendors as well as to government agencies. Many databases maintained by government agencies are now posted on the Internet and are accessible to the public for no or little cost. Wherever it lodges, the data is often suspect for a variety of reasons, may not provide timely or accurate information on an individual, and is subject to statutory restrictions on use. There is a trade organization for the public records industry that sets professional standards and ethics for members: the Public Record Retriever Network (PRRN). A source for finding record vendors, including PRRN members, is BRB Publications, Inc.

Numerous government and commercial resources are available for finding criminal record information:

Federal Bureau of Investigation -- In the Crimes Against Children portion of its Web site, the FBI maintains a link to all available state sex offender registries.

There is a link to the National Sex Offender Public Registry (NSOPR) maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice. FBI "most-wanted" information is at http://www.fbi.gov/wanted.htm.



Federal Bureau of Prisons -- Maintains an inmate locator for inmates of federal prisons incarcerated from 1982 to the present as well as pre-sentenced offenders from the U.S. Marshal's Service and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.



U.S. Marshals Service -- Includes lists of most-wanted and captured fugitives.



Drug Enforcement Administration -- Contains information on crimes involving controlled substances, including the DEA's most wanted fugitives and criminal cases against doctors.



Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Treasury Department -- Publishes a list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) and Blocked Persons, including countries, individuals, and organizations whom the U.S. government believes are engaged in terrorism, international narcotics trafficking, or providing weapons of mass destruction.



VINE (Victim Information and Notification
Everyday) -- A free service funded and provided by local and state agencies for the purpose of notifying victims of crimes of the current custody status of their offender.



Legal Dockets Online -- A portal to criminal records, this site claims to link to "all available sources for inmate, booking, warrant, most-wanted and sex offender registries and maps."



Lexis -- The FINDER/CRIMNL database contains selected criminal record data from 37 states, in many cases back to the year 2000. For some states, researchers must conduct searches using specific criteria in order to retrieve information on an individual. The FINDER/INMATE combined file contains inmate information from five states. The GENFED/MILTRY file contains cases from the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and the Courts of Criminal Appeals for the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, and Navy-Marine Corps from June 1951.



Westlaw -- The CRIM-ALL database contains records derived from U.S. District Court filings, state repository information (Departments of Corrections and Public Safety), state court filings, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, and sex offender registries. Data from 41 states and the District of Columbia are included, but not all jurisdictions provide all types of data. ARREST-ALL contains arrest data from county level reporting agencies, for those counties and states reporting data. CRIM-FED contains U.S. district court criminal docket information from all but five states, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. Usually, the data is updated within 45 days. The combined Sex Offender Registry file is CRIM-SOR.



Proprietary fee-based databases offer geographical breadth at reasonable cost to criminal records research that would be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive using local, on-site research.




Online searches and on-site research risk missing information for a variety of reasons, and the industry standard maintains there is no substitute for searching court records at the local level. The diligent researcher will pursue every available avenue to search down to the lowest possible local level in conducting criminal background searches -- and will recognize there still can be no guarantee of 100% certainty.




Given the inconsistency of data collection among and between local and state jurisdictions, varying standards for updating data and for insuring its accuracy, the lack of any standard for collecting information on criminal offenses, and increasing restrictions imposed on information in public records by jurisdictions concerned about privacy rights, a nationwide criminal records search remains a goal, not a given.



Suggestions for Further Reading

Bureau of Justice Statistics. Improving Criminal History Records for Background Checks. July 2006.


Ernst, Carl R. and Les Rosen. 'National' Criminal History Databases: Issues and Opportunities in Pre-employment Screening. November 26, 2002. (The article is no longer available from BRB Publications, Inc.)


Peterson, Lynn. Navigating the Maze of Criminal Records Retrieval—Updated. June 1, 2001.


Peterson, Lynn, Not All Criminal Records Checks Are Created Equal. March 2, 2005.


Sankey, Mike. Be Aware of the Shortcomings of State Criminal Record Repositories. September 27, 2005.


Tyburski, Genie. How To Conduct a Background Check. Part 1, originally published in Law Office Computing (October/November 2004) under the title, "Background Checks Online."

Also Part 2, originally published in Law Office Computing (December/January 2005) under the title, "Hide and Go Seek."


Tyburski, Genie. To Catch a Thief. Originally published by Law Office Computing (December/January 2004) under the title "It's Criminal."

Privacy Organization Web Sites

© 2007 Jackie Walters all rights reserved.


Jackie Walters is a Washington, D.C. area law librarian.


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Created: 20 April 2007
Revised: 9 May 2008 (no text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/criminal_checks_national.html

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