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Nationwide Criminal Search: A Persistent Myth

Tasha D. Dyson Background Investigation


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Dragons. Mermaids. Fairies. The Loch Ness Monster. Bigfoot. Leprechauns.

Nationwide criminal searches.

All are mythical creatures.

We’re asked all the time if we offer a “nationwide criminal search” or a “multi-state criminal search”. The answer is always “No.”

Why not? Because it simply doesn’t exist.

When you talk about a “nationwide criminal search” or a “multi-state criminal search”, what do you want to know? Our clients tell us that they want to know as much as possible about anything that might make their applicant a bad hire.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) allows your background investigation partner to report all convictions. It also allows us to report all arrests or charges within the last seven years (potentially adverse information).

So what should you know about searching for criminal records? Let’s break it down.

1. No national database exists

Currently, there is no comprehensive national database of criminal records. The US government does not maintain one. The FBI database is not comprehensive, includes incorrect information, and is not available to anyone except law enforcement. (You can read more about the problem here.)

The federal government does keep records of criminal convictions in federal court. However, those cases usually don’t include crimes such as simple assault, minor drug offenses, and DUI (unless they occurred on federal property).

2. States are separate and different

Each state has its own separate judicial system. They are not connected to each other. Although there are similarities, the court structures are different.

For example, North Carolina has District Courts and Superior Courts in each county. Ohio has Common Pleas, County Court, and some Municipal Courts. Georgia has State Court, Superior Court, and Magistrate Court. Each of these states has a different way to process and record criminal records.

3. Courts may be independent

Not all states have a comprehensive statewide criminal database.

In North Carolina, all courts report to a single, searchable database. This is a rarity.

In Ohio, each court is responsible for maintaining its own records. This means, for example, that to completely search criminal records in Cuyahoga County, investigators must search Bedford, Berea, Cleveland Heights, Cleveland, East Cleveland, Euclid, Garfield Heights, Lakewood, Lyndhurst, Parma, Rocky River, Shaker Heights, South Euclid, and Common Pleas. Searching all of the courts in Ohio would require an individual search of over 200 courts.

4. Not all records are online

Not all courts have online records. That seems impossible in the 21st century, but it’s true.

Picture a sparsely populated county in Mississippi or Wyoming. The entire population of the county may be only a few thousand people. Suppose court is only held on the second Monday of each month. They don’t have the budget, resources, or personnel to make court records available online. The only way is to search in person, via mail, or by phone.


So if there is no single database, how do other companies offer a “nationwide criminal search” or a “multi-state criminal search”? They build their own database. That might seem like a good idea, but often:

  • Records are not online
  • Redacted records lack good identifiers (like date of birth)
  • Records are not recent
  • Data may be limited to the last few years
  • Some records may be duplicated
  • Records may not show the original charge or crime
  • Purged records may be included inappropriately

For more details about what data may be missing, click here.

When we do criminal history searches, we check states first (where available) and then individual counties or municipalities as needed. The process is much more accurate. Our clients tell us this process saves them both time and money in the long run since a bad hire can be so costly to a business.

Don’t waste your time with dragons and mermaids, and don’t base business decisions on fairies and leprechauns. Know what would disqualify a candidate at your organization and make sure that you are requesting the best information.