Fantastic Beasts of the Background Check World: the "national criminal search"


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

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Our response is: Do you want to buy a griffin? A hippogriff (half-horse, half-eagle, 100% fantasy)? Time to review Fantastic Beasts of the background check world.

The national criminal check is a myth. What constitutes a “national criminal check” or “nationwide employment criminal background” as the product is often described? 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 prosequi, the legal term of art meaning the prosecutor is unwilling for some reason to pursue the case).

How do you actually check for Criminal Records?

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. While the closest thing to a national criminal records database, 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 access to the dockets still remains mixed: Massachusetts still keeps criminal records off the internet; you need to look at the index in the court.

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

So just beware when you are conducting a criminal background check for employment or any other purpose: to do it right, the investigator may need to leave the office and review records ((paper or database) at the courthouse. Be certain that you are buying more than the fantastic beast of a "national criminal check" which is usually just convictions data.