National Criminal Records Searches

It’s hard to believe with the number of employment screening companies currently offering “Nationwide Criminal Searches” that such a thing does not exist. There are numerous criminal databases available; all offering information from multiple jurisdictions and all containing large numbers of records, but none could be accurately described as a “Nationwide Criminal Search”. Moreover, even after reading the fine print, it is difficult to determine exactly what information they do contain much less determine how current that information is or what period of time they actually do cover.

There is no single source for all nationwide criminal information. If there were, police agencies as well as employers would have the ability to determine instantly the criminal background of anyone apprehended for a crime or applying for a job. Since it doesn’t exist, police do not always know the entire criminal history of everyone they arrest anymore than an employer knows the entire criminal background of a prospective applicant. If it were that easy, there would be a lot fewer criminals on the streets and very little risk associated with the hiring process.

The primary reason the term “Nationwide Criminal Search” is seen with such frequency is that it implies the optimum when searching criminal records. Offering what appears to be “more for less” is clearly an easy sell. All the provider need do to justify using the term is to include some form of coverage in each state. This is done without defining the depth of coverage within the state and without disclosing the time period covered by the information provided, or how often the information provided is actually up-dated. The inherent admission that the coverage offered by the search is not nationwide is usually found in the fine print where the jurisdictions included are listed along with a legal disclaimer.

Multi jurisdiction criminal database searches do have their place and clearly, there are advantages to a criminal records database search as opposed to a live court search that makes it very appealing. Generally, the cost of the database search, since no real labor is involved, is significantly less. There are no court fees and no cost for the search itself other than the access fee charged by the provider. The information available is returned much faster than a live search and usually can be accomplished with on-line access. Since most databases contain numerous records, the search is not without merit.

In turn, there are also some distinct disadvantages as well. Lack of adequate identifiers such as dates of birth, middle names and social security numbers make the identification process difficult if not impossible. Lack of dates and missing information for arrests and dispositions along with the overall lack of details pertaining to the records themselves can make using the information in the employment decision process very difficult. The only methods available to confirm a record are to access the source of the information which may or may not be readily available.

Then why isn’t a Nationwide Criminal Database Search available? The best known criminal records database is the FBI’s Database or NCIC (National Criminal Information Center). Originally established for the exclusive use of police agencies, the NCIC is clearly the largest resource of its kind. Although its utilization has recently been extended for some non-police activities, it is generally not available for employment screening purposes. Even if it were available, it would not be the ultimate solution for employers as it shares many of the same deficiencies of its commercial counterparts. NCIC, like any other database obtains its information from reporting states. Slow reporting by states, few current court dispositions and missing information on non-felony offenses are only a few of the short comings of what would probably be considered the best and the largest criminal records database in existence.

For employment screening purposes, criminal background searches are part of a company’s “due diligence”. Due diligence is defined as “a reasonable and expected measure of attention taken for a particular action. Not measurable by an absolute standard, but dependant on the situation.” Due diligence in a criminal background search should include a determination of where your applicant has lived or worked over the reporting period (generally the last seven years) and then searching those jurisdictions for criminal records. Anything less is falling short of due diligence by definition.

A database search does not constitute due diligence since the area of coverage offered by the database may not necessarily include the jurisdictions where the subject has lived or worked. Some database providers would have you believe that searching a database is comparable, and in some instances even superior, to searching a defined jurisdiction’s criminal records. This “One Size Fits All” approach to background checking is simply dangerous. The obvious fault is that unless the database is analyzed for content, you may be searching areas where the subject has never ever lived or worked.

Now that the realities of the issue have been addressed, what role can criminal record databases play in the employment screening process? They are, at best, a good supplemental tool to augment a solid criminal background investigation. A criminal background investigation can be improved with a database search, but not replaced with one. A well defined, criminal search of jurisdictions where the subject is known to have lived or worked is a “Custom Tailored” approach unique to each applicant. This customized approach makes for a far more substantive search with a significantly greater probability of finding records.

Taking chances with the hiring process can make for a very uncomfortable fit. Making sure that your applicants fit the position requires a customized approach toward the screening process.