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Criminal Database Limitations:
A Database Search Is Not A Background Check

by Glenn and Rose Maree Hammer

A Database Search Is Not A Background Check
According to Bob Sullivan, a technology correspondent with NBC, National criminal history databases have a 41% error rate (see Criminal Background Checks Incomplete: How convicted felons can slip through safety net ). Would you fly in an airliner with such a service record? or do business with a mechanic whose repairs were adequate only 59% of the time?

Conducting a Nationwide or Statewide Criminal Database search in lieu of a proper background check denies an employer the benefits of thorough employment background screening. Nation-wide and state-wide criminal databases are notoriously incomplete and out of date. Significant holes exist in geographic and date coverage (some databases are only updated every 6 months). Criminal databases cannot be relied upon for accuracy and completeness.
Nationwide and Statewide Criminal Database Limitations
There are more than 7,000 significant courts in the United States that maintain criminal records. There is no national criminal record database that contains all these records. A "hit" on the 'Nationwide' or the 'Statewide' Criminal Database Check does not ensure that the applicant is a criminal, and a "clear" result does not ensure that the applicant does not have a criminal record. Vital information, such as file numbers, conviction dates, and personal identifiers, is often missing.

Any database is only as reliable as its last update. What information is included, when it is included, and how it is included affects the quality and completeness of the database. Even official state repositories are dependent on counties for criminal record information, and counties may or may not be diligent, reliable, or timely in providing updates. Therefore, most state repositories do not have complete or up-to-date information.

The availability of criminal records varies greatly from state to state and county to county. A true 'Statewide' Criminal Records Check is difficult, if not impossible, to find. There are few states that keep a publicly accessible central database of all criminal records. Therefore, most 'Statewide' Criminal Databases are compiled from a range of sources (including county record searches) by private database companies.

Most criminal database searches are not compliant with the Fair Credit Report Act (FCRA) and similar state laws. Therefore, any "hits" must be verified with the local jurisdiction.

More "Bad Hires"
The business benefits derived by an organization from screening out the "bad hires" with employment background checks may only be gained by accurately and completely reviewing the history of an employee or applicant. Inasmuch as criminal violations fail to be reported, the following benefits may not be realized from database searches:
  • Reduce theft and embezzlement.
  • Limit legal exposure for negligent hiring and retention.
  • Increase applicant quality.
  • Check for potential discipline problems.
  • Verify application information.
  • Decrease insurance costs.
  • Discover drug or alcohol problems in applicant.
  • Decrease workplace violence.
  • Discourage applicants who have something to hide.
  • Limit uncertainty in hiring process.
  • Enable the company to know who it is hiring

Criminal Record Databases as Research Tools
Nation-wide and state-wide database searches are best used as research tools only. Relying solely on a quick, but flawed criminal database search may engender a false sense of security, and it wastes time and energy in an incomplete process that may not yield the desired benefits.

Related Resources

The Authors
Glenn and Rose Maree Hammer, founders of A Matter of Fact, a California-based employment background check firm. www.amof.info

Note: This information is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for professional legal advice.