- Full name (preferably what appears on the person’s driver’s license or another government-issued document) including any nickname and maiden name
- Date of birth from an official source (e.g., driver’s license, passport, etc.)
- Addresses and/or counties where the person has resided (more on that later)
- A Social Security number (helpful, but not necessary)
For simplicity’s sake, we have broken the ways to conduct a criminal background check into four categories: online databases, “official” repositories, courthouses and other sources.
Online databases offer a quick and easy way to search millions of criminal records. Investigators have access to professional databases, which offer a wider range of criminal records, but for the general public, there are hundreds of online service providers that respond to criminal record inquiries.
The one we recommend is SearchSystems.net, which reportedly has more than “400 million records.” What we like most about the SearchSystems database is the transparency of identifying what is covered in the database, unlike most other databases you see.
If you use another service, be sure to read the fine print in the description of database coverage to know exactly what is included in the search and the dates that are covered. For example, some database providers search only sex offender records, which can be performed for free through the Department of Justice website.
The benefits of using online databases are that they are quick, easy and relatively inexpensive. However, they are not comprehensive, are filled with holes and inaccuracies, and should not be relied on exclusively. There are numerous examples of an individual or business that opted to take the “short road” in terms of a background check provider and failed to uncover critical information.
Official repositories include state and federal government repositories where you can access information directly through the source. For example, through Pacer you can search federal criminal records. Additionally many states offer ways to conduct a statewide criminal search through either the state court system, like the New York Office of Court Administration, where you can conduct a statewide criminal record search in New York, or, as in Connecticut, where you can make a request through the Department of Public Safety, Division of State Police.
The benefit, of course, is that you are using an official repository run by the state or federal government; however, these repositories are only as good as the information they contain. In Texas, it was recently reported that one out of every four criminal records never made it to the Department of Public Safety Computerized Criminal History System, which is not terribly comforting.
We have also found numerous instances over the years of cases not appearing in Pacer but appearing in other investigative databases. Also, it’s critical to understand that the person may have committed a crime across state lines, which can be found out the hard way. This was the case when the Massachusetts hired people with serious criminal records out of state.
Going straight to the source is the best thing you can possibly do to conduct a criminal background check. You can be confident that the information is accurate; you can typically search further back in time; and if necessary, you can retrieve the documents from the case right on the spot to confirm with certainty that the case is related to the right person.
The issue with going to the courthouse directly is that it is relatively cost prohibitive, especially if the person has resided in multiple jurisdictions. Also, if the person happened to commit a crime across a county line, it may not show up in the local courthouse. The fact remains, there is no better way to conduct a criminal background check that to go straight to the court.
In addition to consulting the sources above, there are several other things you can do to find criminal records that may or may not have been identified in the above sources, including accessing the sex offender registry, state prison records and federal prison records. Additionally, it’s a good idea to search local media publications or police blotters, as someone may have been charged with violating a local ordinance or pleaded down to a lesser charge that may not be found in the public record.
- There is no one central repository for searching criminal records, despite claims to the contrary.
- Always use multiple sources to conduct a criminal background check, even if there is an overlap in coverage.
- Read the fine print! Always know what information is contained in a database, government repository or court computer – the information you get is only as good as what is contained in the results.
- Always determine the dates that are covered in whatever you are searching. If the person you are looking into lived in a jurisdiction 15 years ago, but the database only covers 10 years, you’ve got a problem.
- If you find a serious issue, retrieve the documents to confirm that a) the information matches the person you are investigating and b) you get the facts about the case.
- Going straight to the source (the court) is the best thing you can possibly do to conduct a criminal background check.
About the Author:
This article was originally posted on the Diligentia Group blog.
Brian Willingham, CFE is a New York Private Investigator and President of Diligentia Group