Every tiny shape you see within each state in the map above represents a county or parish. There are close to 3000 of them in the United States, and within them there are thousands and thousands of individual police departments, sheriff’s offices, and other law enforcement agencies.
This naturally makes the process of obtaining 100% comprehensive criminal record checks next to impossible. After all, the sharing of information among agencies is not as it appears on TV shows like NCIS and Cold Case and in James Bond movies. Believe it or not, law enforcement agencies are often in competition with each other for information and the chance to prosecute cases. Even if you sent fingerprints to the FBI, there is no guarantee that you will get a totally accurate criminal record of the person returned.
You ask, “How can that be? It’s the FBI! They are supposed to know everything.” In reality, when it comes to a person’s criminal record, they only know what they learn and are told by the state and local law enforcement agencies mentioned above.
Here’s an example: Your job applicant was arrested for cocaine possession two weeks ago. There is a very good chance that you would learn about this by checking the person’s local criminal record. But the agency (let’s say it’s a county’s circuit court) that processed the record may not have yet forwarded the information to the FBI. Therefore, an FBI report could come back as clear.
This places law enforcement officials (such as police officers) and the general public at a terrible disadvantage. The applicant’s case could go on for a year, and he/she could be convicted and sentenced to prison. But if the local agency never reports the information to the FBI, a report generated by the FBI wouldn’t show it, or might just show portions of the case.
The point: There is no criminal record check that is absolutely foolproof. But doing the best you can is important, and it will go a long way if you ever have to stand in front of a judge defending your business decisions. A judge would much rather hear “Your honor, we can show that on this day we checked the person’s criminal record in these places and that it was clear,” than “Your honor, we never checked a criminal record.”
What do I do?
Conduct a search on the person’s name in state and local courts in the counties where the person has lived or worked. Search the agency that maintains the statewide criminal history databases for states where the person has lived or worked. Conduct a search on the person’s name in federal courts in districts where the person has lived or worked. Search nationwide criminal databases for additional information.