A criminal background check is a common function of modern commerce, typically required for degrees of employment, business contracts such as loans and rental leases, and other functions requiring a degree of trust.
What is Involved in a Background Check?
The legal system stores records of criminal history pertaining to charges or convictions, for both felonies and misdemeanors. These records are recorded in both physical and digital formats, generated by local, county and state governments from police, criminal courts, and correctional facilities. The detail of this information can vary from one state to another, determined by each state’s laws regarding public access to criminal records.
The average record typically provides personal identification, the arrest record, any outstanding warrants, current charges that are pending, and any dismissed or acquitted charges. In cases of a conviction, the record will include any time served in a correctional facility, probation and fines, orders of community service, house arrest, and parole or probation. The personal identification will typically include full name plus aliases, date of birth, address records, mugshots, prints, and identifying metrics such as noted tattoos or scars.
All criminal matters usually are considered the public records. The exception is special cases such as juvenile offenders, very minor misdemeanors, or other cases where a judge has deemed the offense fit to be expunged. For instance, a person with an otherwise good record who committed an error of oversight might have an understanding judge let them off with a light fine and an expunged record.
What Partial Records are Available?
One quick way to skim public criminal records for a “first pass” check is to use a mugshot search. Mugshots are one of the most accessible public records to search since they’re typically shared with the news media. They’re also among the earliest record gathered when a suspect is in custody, even if there has been no conviction yet.
A special case of a publicly accessible database is a sex offender registry. These are made more accessible to the public in an effort to promote public safety and to help curtail repeat offenses. There are tight regulations on where a person convicted of a sexual offense may live, such as forbidding them from living within a certain distance of public schools.
One more special case is the most-wanted list, such as the one run by the FBI. These are suspects at large, usually wanted for considerable felonies. Their mugshots and fully detailed identification is made public and easily accessible, as law enforcement seeks the public’s assistance in informing law enforcement of the location of these fugitives should they be spotted.
All of the above cases are easily skimmed online. However, the Internet records typically only go back to the early 1990s when the World Wide Web became commonplace.
What are the Steps Involved?
Seeking a subject’s criminal record begins at both upper and lower courts in a district, for felony and misdemeanor matters respectively. Once a name is given, if there is a criminal record with that courthouse, it will return a case number. Case numbers can then be used to request that the clerk pull all records pertaining to the case, which can be released as a copy.
This has to be repeated for each courthouse in any district where the subject has lived, typically checking county courthouses. Usually, a brief cursory search will reveal past addresses of a subject; if so, the same routine has to be performed again at each of the other courthouses in the districts where the subject lived previously. Additionally, if the subject has used alternative aliases, a search might have to be conducted under alternative names as well.
Caution should be exercised to avoid false positives. In cases where the subject has a common name and lives in a large city, there may be several people with the identical name in that jurisdiction. Online databases used for ancestry or white pages can help to assemble a profile on a subject that would help screen out records from somebody else with the same name. The most common secondary target identification is the date of birth, as it’s very unusual (but not impossible) for two people to share both the same name and the same date of birth.
When investigating a subject who does have a string of run-ins with the police, it’s common for one record to point to another. For example, if a subject was apprehended while on the run, they may have gotten into additional trouble in the location around where they were caught. Or a conviction can lead to probation, which, if the suspect violated that, becomes a separate legal matter. An investigator can use this effect to chain together an eventual full account of criminal history.
How may Criminal Background Check Results be Used?
There may be federal and state laws pertaining to what kinds of decisions can be made regarding employment, tenant approvals, business transactions, and other matters. Investigators should be advised that even criminals have some rights, and application of the findings of criminal background checks should not be abused for personal gain. In addition, libel and slander laws usually forbid making a public accusation concerning a suspect, such as the case for someone arrested, but not charged, in a crime.