It is not possible to simply “plug in” someone’s Social Security number into a criminal records database and find all the criminal records pertaining to that individual. If you have been told that, then you have been told wrong.
There is not a comprehensive national criminal records check available to the general public. The one “nationwide” criminal database, the FBI database, which is known as the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) is NOT public record and cannot be accessed legally by anyone other than criminal justice agencies. For employment purposes fingerprint background checks can only be used if required by a state statute. With the thousands of criminal indexes managed by different counties, parish, township, and municipalities, conducting a legitimate nationwide criminal search would require accessing each individual index and this would be time consuming and quite expensive.
National Criminal Records (public)
The publically available national criminal database is a compilation of criminal records from various state criminal records sources including county courts, office of court administrations and prison records. Not all jurisdictions report and the information available varies with each state. For example, the state of NY only reports state prison inmate records to the database. The database contains minimal information from the State of CA. Although the database is not complete, it has considerable value and continues to improve as more and more jurisdictions are added. Over 120 million records are reported.
Statewide Criminal Checks
The state criminal indexes receive their data from the counties. Statewide searches are not available in all states. Some states do not provide a complete history of criminal records while other states may only report Bureau of Prison records. A word of warning about statewide criminal records…some commercial public records vendors claiming to provide statewide criminal records are actually providing statewide inmate searches and this has little value. If the subject has been placed on probation, released from prison, or is sentenced to the county jail rather than state prison, the search will yield a “no record.”
County Level Criminal Checks
Researching criminal court records at the county level is critical and in many states the only way to conduct background checks. In some counties felony and misdemeanor records are maintained in a combined index, in others felonies and misdemeanor records must be checked separately. Typically, county records are maintained for a period of seven years back or more. Even if the records are available beyond seven years, state and federal laws must be followed.
How Records Are Recorded
Most criminal records are indexed by the name and date of birth of the subject. The correct spelling of the name is critical to obtaining accurate results. If the person had a former name, that name should also be searched. While the majority of jurisdictions have computerized their criminal records, most do not allow off-site access. Therefore, a researcher must be physically dispatched to the courthouse to search the public access terminals. Many courts do not even offer public access terminals, as they have not developed systems that separate public records data from nonpublic records. In many cases, the researcher may have to submit the request to the court clerk and return in a day or two for the results. The court may provide access to its criminal docket index (often microfiche). However, the index usually contains nothing more than dates, case numbers and names of defendants. If the subject has a common name many records may be found for that name of which may have nothing to do with the subject. Therefore, all case files found on the index with the same name must be examined for a match to date of birth . It will also be necessary to examine the case files to determine the charges and the dispositions and if the case is legally reportable according to state and federal laws.
With the somewhat complexity of criminal record searching, the most thorough approach is to search both the public national database and at the county level in the counties where the subject has lived. The national search allows you to cast a wider net while the county court search allows you to search the local counties of residence. A combination of both is the best approach to ensure diligent background screening practices.