Background Check Myths - The National Criminal Check

Every investigator gets phone calls from this person. The tone excited, the tenor demanding. How can you, dear sir, charge so much when other firms offer "national criminal record checks" for $24.95?

Time to review Fantastic Beasts of Background Myths: what constitutes a “national criminal check” or “nationwide criminal background check” as the product is often described.

The national criminal check is the hippogriff of the industry, a complete myth. Usually, the firm offering this search is checking a compilation of conviction data--people who actually were sentenced to prison. However, only a very small percentage of people charged with crimes ever do any prison time. National offender databases are misleading: they miss charges that have been pled out, dismissed, not prosecuted (Nolle prosequ, the legal term of art meaning the prosecutor is unwilling to pursue the case).

Everyone is familiar with scenes from movies where a law enforcement agent runs a quick database check and gets an entire criminal history in seconds. In real life, things tend to be a bit more convoluted.

One database used by law enforcement is the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and it is typically limited only to law enforcement. And even NCIC data is riddled with gaps, with as many as 50% of all criminal cases failing to hit the database. So how do you proceed to check a person for crimes committed across 50 states in the USA?

Convictions data is a start but we always go back to the primary sources of criminal records: the state court system. On the state side, this means searching a higher court (Superior Court) that handles major crimes in a particular county, as well as lower courts with more limited jurisdiction. These courts are called district courts or municipal courts. Don’t make the mistake of skipping this step as district courts can hear cases involving serious criminal matters; for example in Massachusetts, some felony cases are found in district court.

And on the federal side, you will be checking for criminal cases in the national PACER system.

So just beware when you are scanning someone for a criminal history: to do it right, the investigator will probably need to leave the office and pull some paper records. A thorough investigation will take more than just a database search.