One of our core services is investigations, and we do a lot of pre-employment background investigations. We are often asked if we can include a “nationwide criminal search”, and we explain that there is no such thing as a public, comprehensive, nationwide criminal record check that searches all courts and jurisdictions. They say, “But I can get one for $19.95 from a website. Doesn’t that search everywhere?” We decided to take a closer look at an advertised “nationwide criminal search” to see what information is actually included.
One of the vendors we use for investigative information offers a “nationwide criminal search” in addition to a wide variety of other searches. We chose this vendor as an example for a few reasons. First, we use them to verify Social Security numbers and provide address histories. We trust that the data they provide is accurate. Second, they provide a list of what sources are used to create their “nationwide criminal search” which allows us to examine each source separately.
For pre-employment background investigations, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) allows the reporting of records of arrest within the last seven years and all criminal convictions (no time limit). For positions with an expected annual salary of $75,000 or more, all records of arrest may be reported (no time limit). Using the FCRA as a guide, we examined the results that were provided by the “nationwide criminal search.” We considered the following factors:
- Do the records include all felony convictions?
- Do the records include all misdemeanor convictions?
- Do the records include all traffic convictions?
- Do the records include all felony arrests or charges within the last seven years?
- Do the records include all misdemeanor arrests or charges within the last seven years?
- Do the records include all traffic arrests or charges within the last seven years?
- Are the records current (less than one month old) or historical?
We took this data (current as of 12/31/2013), made a chart, and mapped the results. The results are below.
Generally speaking, darker shading means more complete records. For this particular “nationwide criminal search”, the most complete information came from Utah and Oklahoma, where the data is current and they reportedly obtain all felony, misdemeanor, and traffic convictions and arrests/charges. The worst states were Kentucky and South Dakota. In Kentucky, the vendor only reports felony convictions before 2008, meaning that there is no arrest/charge data, no misdemeanor conviction data, no traffic conviction data, and no data from the past five years. In South Dakota, they provide no information at all. (Delaware and Wyoming also report no data, but these two states require fingerprints to conduct criminal record searches.)
There are a few things to remember when considering criminal records:
- Not every state makes statewide criminal histories available to the public (Example: California).
- Not every state makes statewide criminal histories available online (Example: Illinois).
- Some states will not allow name-only searches and require fingerprints (Example: Delaware).
- Some states have lower courts (municipal, justice of the peace, county, district) that to not report to a single state repository (Example: Ohio).
RMA does not search “nationwide”. We search each location where the subject has lived or worked, individually. When we search for criminal records, we start with the most authoritative source – courts, state police, or administrative authorities. Each state has different laws about what records are available to the public, and all states have a different mechanism for requesting records. Sometimes, the best records are only available by mailing a request.
We then looked at our sources, asked the same questions, and assigned the same shading. In our case, we did not limit searches to “online” and allowed for mailed requests.
The best results for RMA come from North Carolina. We have a direct connection to the Administrative Office of the Courts and get the same real-time information as a clerk of court. The state with the least information is West Virginia, where we can only access felony convictions. (Again, Delaware and Wyoming report no data, but these two states require fingerprints to conduct criminal record searches.)
Is their “nationwide criminal search” faster? Absolutely.
Is it cheaper? Sure.
Does it provide all the criminal information allowed to be reported based on the Fair Credit Reporting Act? No. Results only include the electronic records the state or county makes available to that particular vendor, and there are serious gaps.
Is it comprehensive? Not even close.