Television crime shows like CSI give the impression that the federal government has a comprehensive database of all (or even just the most serious) criminal convictions in the US. With just a few keystrokes, POOF!, an individual’s entire criminal record appears along with an 8x10 color photo, their family details, where they work, their pets’ names, and their shoe size. The truth is far different. (Also, we have regular flourescent lighting in our office, not that pallor-inducing blue light they always have on crime-dramas!)

The term “FBI background check” is a reference to a fingerprint search of the records in the FBI’s Interstate Identification Index’s criminal records (called III or triple-I).  This system contains most if not all of recent federal criminal offenders and many criminal offenders from participating states.

Not all states participate in III and those that do participate don’t always submit all of their records to the FBI. Many don’t even have access to all the records in their own state.

For instance, the Texas Department of Public Safety submits the records for Texas. However, DPS is missing one-third of the criminal cases out there (including one-third of the people currently on death row) so you can expect that III is missing a corresponding number of Texas records.

In 2006 the US Attorney General published a report called The Attorney General’s Report on Criminal History Background Checks.” It is 149 pages long, but here is a key paragraph for employers (emphasis added):

Contrary to common perception, the FBI’s III system is not a complete national database of all criminal history records in the United States. Many state records, whether from law enforcement agencies or the courts, are not included or have not been updated.  For example, not all the state criminal history records or associated fingerprints meet the standards for inclusion in the III. Because of inconsistent state reporting requirements, some criminal history records involve offenses that are not submitted to the FBI. Other records that were submitted to the FBI do not have fingerprints of sufficient quality to be entered into the system. Moreover, many criminal history records may contain information regarding an arrest, but are missing the disposition of that arrest. Currently, only 50 percent of III arrest records have final dispositions. The records of more recent arrests, however, have a higher rate of completeness. Nevertheless, the III, while far from complete, is the most comprehensive single source of criminal history information in the United States, and provides users, at a minimum, with a pointer system that assists in discovering more complete information on a person’s involvement with the criminal justice system.

Most private organizations do not have access to III. There are narrow legislative exceptions such as federally insured banks.
We encourage clients who have access to these records to go ahead and obtain them with the understanding that the results will be similar to our multi-jurisdiction criminal records database product. The III has a good chance of missing a fair number of the criminal records for an individual and everything found should be verified with the original jurisdiction before you make any employment decisions based upon it (hence the references above to missing or non-updated records in the excerpt above).

Also, employers with access to III must also be careful about creating possible liability for themselves by mistakenly using arrest records against applicants. The FBI reports are difficult to read and easy to misunderstand.

As a comparison, when Imperative conducts a background investigation, we are relying primarily on the live records of the courts in each jurisdiction where the person has lived, worked, or attended school during the last ten years or a longer period requested by our client. This research will show recently filed cases as well as older records (determined by how far back the court’s computers go).

The strength of this process is that most people’s criminal records are in the locations where they’ve lived. The state criminal records repositories (such as Texas DPS’ criminal records database) is useful as a safety net that may catch records in other jurisdictions (maybe they got in trouble while traveling) or older records that aren’t reflected on the court’s current computer system (some counties only switched to computerized records in the last ten or fifteen years).

Adding a broader scope database such as an FBI check (in those limited cases where a private entity has access) or Imperative’s multi-jurisdiction criminal records database expands the scope of the safety net. Just remember that these databases (whether government or privately maintained) will miss a fair number of records that can readily be found at the county courthouses – they should always be verified because records change and the resutls aren’t always passed on to the databases.

Imperative encourages clients who do not have access to the FBI records to run our multi-jurisdictional criminal records database product which contains criminal records from those counties and states around the country that will sell their data in electronic format.  We always verify any records found in the multi-jurisdiction database before reporting it to our clients. Here’s why.