Can Accusations of a Crime Do as Much Damage as a Conviction?

In 2008, a young woman was found murdered in her apartment in Redmond, Washington, several days after a large, open-door Halloween party. With a contaminated crime scene and a huge pool of suspects, police had to rely on scant forensic evidence to build a case. Ultimately, the man they chose to charge with the crime, Emanuel Fair, was put in jail to await trial based only on DNA fragments—and, he alleges in a new lawsuit, in part because he was the only Black man in the suspect pool.

During the investigation, a criminal background check on Mr. Fair was a key factor in supporting the conclusions drawn by detectives. That check revealed a prior "no contest" conviction on a charge of third-degree rape in 2004. This history, combined with evidence collected at the scene, led to Mr. Fair's incarceration in 2010. However, Mr. Fair now alleges in his lawsuit that police did not diligently pursue an investigation against a neighbor in the apartment complex who may have committed the murder instead. 

Mr. Fair would await trial for years before one jury deadlocked, and a second trial finally acquitted him based on the reasonable doubt raised by the poor investigative tactics. His lawsuit seeks compensation for his lengthy incarceration and the lasting damage to his mental health and social status. 

As Mr. Fair continues in his litigation against both the police and county government, his case—and the consequences of incarceration with which he now lives—highlight some of the more complex issues surrounding procedures such as county criminal history checks.

Though he was never convicted, Mr. Fair will likely face many of the challenges that many of the formerly incarcerated encounter. Even without a conviction, the negative reputation associated with ex-prisoners can bias employers against hiring such individuals. When a simple Google search might reveal old media coverage about an arrest, obtaining employment can become a serious struggle. 

Pending charges do appear on most county background checks, and employers should exercise caution when evaluating such individuals. It is important to remember that an arrest or an arraignment does not signify guilt. Although Mr. Fair remained in jail for years because of an exorbitantly high bond requirement, he may have faced many of these issues had he been released on bail in 2010.

Often, the presence of a pending case or an individual's status as a criminal offender in the past can influence employers. These decisions aren't based on a real evaluation of the applicant or their situation. Rather, regardless of the true level of risk, some businesses may not want to wade into these issues at all. 

However, it is important to adopt a broader perspective. With many currently incarcerated individuals and a growing population of "ex-cons," businesses are more likely than ever to encounter applicants who may have past convictions or pending charges. Having the right tools to access and understand this information is critical—but so too is an evaluation process that strives to maintain fairness and impartiality. 

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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