SUMMARY OF AVAILABLE DATA SOURCES FOR PRIVATE SECTOR CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECKS:
The criminal justice system plays by two sets of rules when it comes to release of information. There’s one set for law enforcement that is highly unrestricted and there’s one for everyone else that is more limited but still provides essential information. Because these records are for “everyone else” they’re referred to as “public records.”
It is the role of the private sector background investigator to successfully navigate these public records to accurately determine if a subject does or does not have a criminal past.
Let’s look at the various types of public records that might be found in a private-sector criminal background check:
CRIMINAL COURT RECORDS:
Criminal court records may exist on the city, county, state or federal level. They are the heart and soul of most criminal background checks. Although all are generally considered public record, many are not available over the Internet. Due to vintage record filing systems, often the investigator or a service he hires, must physically go to the court, wait in line, and possibly pay a fee to learn if the person being investigated has a criminal record in that court. Although tedious, this is an important part of a thorough background check.
STATE GOVERNMENT CRIMINAL RECORD REPOSITORIES:
A number of states collect criminal conviction information from the various counties and place it into a central database. This data is derived from the courthouses, is limited to convictions, and is public record. States that offer this centralized repository include Florida, Texas, Georgia and others.
Most states make the names of current and past state prison inmates public record. Several include this information on the Internet – such as New York and Arizona. However, more commonly, the Internet websites for the various departments of corrections are limited to current inmates. Information on past inmates may still be available though, often through a service like Crime Smasher.
SEX OFFENDER RECORDS:
Another vital source of criminal records are sex offender registries. These are now well known public records geared for public consumption and available online in all 50 states as a result of Megan’s Law. In my own personal experience as a private investigator, it is extremely, EXTREMELY rare to do a background check and learn the person is an actual registered sex offender.
Much less commonly available are state probation/parole files that offer public disclosure of persons still under supervision. States that offer one version of this or another include Georgia and Florida.
Arrest reports are traditionally NOT available to the public. However, in recent years privately owned companies have begun to harvest and sell this information by successfully compiling lists of arrestees that are publicly released by various criminal justice agencies. Although useful, these “arrest reports” are spotty in geographic coverage.
WANTS AND WARRANTS:
There are two different types of “Wants and Warrants” searches. The original and best version is available to law enforcement only. However, many individual law enforcement agencies have a practice of releasing information on wanted persons. As with arrest reports, private companies specializing in the collection or “harvesting” of public records have acquired enough of these records to create large fee-based databases that can be searched. Crime Smasher is one such service that offers this type of data. Although useful as one source in a multi-sourced criminal background check, this privately created Wants and Warrants file should not be considered definitive proof that a person is not wanted.
Pitfall 1: Data Blind Spots in Internet-based Criminal Record Searches and the Myth of “Nationwide” Criminal Background Checks
Pitfall 2: Use of Personal Identifiers to Verify Identity of Offenders
Pitfall 3: Criminal Background Checks for Employers: Legal Considerations
The Importance of Redundancy in Records Checking
Model Private Sector "Best Practices" Criminal Background Check
Conclusion: The Role of Internet-based Criminal Record Searches
About the Author and Disclaimer
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