What Does Disposition Mean on a Background Check?
For employers and individuals exploring background check services, the criminal justice system can be overwhelming. You shouldn't need a law degree to read a report designed to make it easier to make safe, smart hiring decisions. Learning a few important terms will simplify the effort of analyzing detailed background reports as you vet candidates for employment, tenancy, or other situations for which background checks are common.
The term disposition on a background check is one that you may have never encountered before ordering and reading a screening report on a candidate. Even if you understand how criminal trials work, it may be surprising to learn that there are layers of complexity that go beyond "guilty" or "not guilty."
Learn the definition and explore all the critical details that you need to know about this status.
What Is Disposition? A Quick Definition
Think of disposition as the authoritative status of a particular criminal case, arrest, or prosecution. It is the criminal justice system's method of noting how a case resolved or how it will soon proceed. Disposition has meaning on background check reports as either a status update or the final word.
Understanding the different types of dispositions is an essential skill to develop when reading background reports. While disposition alone does not tell the whole story, as it lies in a separate category from criminal sentencing, this information does warrant your consideration during the pre-employment process.
Where to Find a Case Disposition
Dispositions for every case in an individual's criminal history are usually in separate records per charge. Searching for these records individually is time-consuming, but background checks make quick work of that challenge. The disposition status for a criminal case will typically appear as one of the first items of information under that case on a background report.
In some cases, disposition data will not be a part of the record. Instead, you may see sentencing information if the individual was convicted or pleaded guilty to the charges against them. The data provided varies from repository to repository, but in general, you will always see either disposition or sentencing information associated with an individual’s criminal records.
What Does It Mean If a Case Has an "Awaiting Disposition" Status?
A case with an "awaiting disposition" status has not concluded its journey through the justice system. When an applicant background check shows one or more charges "awaiting disposition," it means that the court is still working towards reaching an outcome with the offender.
That status could mean that the case is pending before the court due to delays in hearings or the need to assemble a jury trial, or that proceedings are ongoing. Due to the time that it takes some systems to receive updated data from the courts, if changes to the case occurred very recently, a charge marked with this status may have already concluded.
What Is a Disposition Hearing?
A disposition hearing is a court appearance that does not directly relate to the term as it appears on background checks. An individual accused of a crime first has an arraignment, during which prosecutors formally levy charges against them. The next court date that the accused has will typically be the disposition hearing.
It is a "status update" hearing in most cases. The accused can enter or change their plea, which could influence their case disposition. The individual's defense attorney may use the hearing as an opportunity to ask for additional time to assemble a defense or request movement to a trial. A disposition hearing is an intermediate step on the way to determining a case's outcome.
Is There a Difference Between Disposition and Sentencing?
Yes. A disposition on a background check only tells you what the outcome of a case was in broad terms; it does not tell you the consequences of that outcome. Sentencing doesn't apply when the court dismisses a charge or the prosecution declines to pursue a case further. When an offender enters a guilty plea or receives a conviction from the court, the sentencing phase determines the type, length, and nature of their punishment.
For some, that sentence will mean jail time. For others, it could be fines and probation. When available, sentencing information typically appears directly below a listed criminal charge along with the conviction date and the length of a prison or probation term, if applicable.
Disposition Language to Know: Types and Terms
What are some of the types of dispositions that you might encounter on a background check? The terminology varies slightly from state to state, but most systems use the same basic words or phrases to detail an offender's current disposition—here are the most important terms to know.
- Pending: The case is still active in the court system and there is no outcome or additional information available. Pending cases may have a resolution newly available in court filings when you order a background check.
- No Charge / Declined / Dropped: These terms are ways that the state may choose not to prosecute an individual if there is not enough evidence for a charge, officials decline to hear the case in court, or officials drop the charges.
- Deferred: The offender has entered a pre-trial diversion program, putting the charges in a paused state. Failure of the program could trigger active prosecution; completion usually results in dismissal.
- Dismissed: Prosecuting officials chose to end proceedings against the accused and requested dismissal from the court. Dismissed cases have concluded.
- Acquitted: Prosecutors presented the charges in criminal trial court, but a judge or jury acquitted the defendant with a "not guilty" verdict.
- Convicted: A judge or jury rendered a "guilty" verdict on the charge.
- Suspended: A pending case that may or may not follow a conviction, this status refers to a "suspended sentence," meaning that the case will remain pending until the success or failure of a probationary period or other similar measures.
Some court systems report more detailed conviction and acquittal dispositions by attaching plea information. For example, you might see a disposition of "convicted, plead guilty" versus "adjudicated guilty," meaning that the offender entered a not guilty plea originally. Other systems only report conviction or acquittal status and not the specific method to reach that outcome.
When Is Disposition Relevant Information?
Although some background checks or criminal data systems omit non-convictions from reports, some charges without sentencing data appear on reports. Dispositions can provide a critical point of context for evaluating a charge and its impact on the suitability of an applicant. For example, a disposition of "acquitted" means that the individual was arrested, charged, and went to trial for a crime—something that may warrant a discussion with the applicant in an appropriate setting.
Dispositions provide you with information to consider even when they appear as "pending": an applicant with active business before a criminal court, for example, may not be the right fit for an open position at your company.
Why Understanding Disposition Matters
As an element of background checks, disposition and all the data associated with criminal charges provide users with critical information. The presence of a criminal record does not necessarily speak to the character or tendencies of an individual. Using detailed data, such as the current disposition of a case, fills in some of the blanks—especially for very recent charges.
Disposition data provides you with an opportunity to evaluate the impact of a piece of criminal history data on your considerations. When allowed by local law, they also give you topics to discuss in interviews with candidates so that individuals can provide their own context for what a report says. The goal is to conduct a fair process that creates a safeguard against negligent hiring. Understanding dispositions, sentencing, and other screening terminology help you to do so.
Using Disposition Information and Background Checks Legally
Although background checks are a potent tool for employers, landlords, nonprofits, and other organizations to use for vetting applicants, they come with some caveats. Because these reports contain sensitive personal information, governments at every level have formulated rules to prevent background checks from becoming a source of discriminatory behavior. Knowing how to correctly consider data, such as a criminal case disposition, is fundamental to conducting screenings in accordance with the law.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act, or FCRA, is one of the most influential pieces of legislation in this area. It lays out the rules on how and when you may use background checks. It also stipulates that you must provide applicants with a "pre-adverse action" notification if you plan to issue a denial based on the information that you uncovered. You're required to provide this notice so that the individual has an opportunity to provide an explanation or alternative evidence.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also offers guidelines on how to use background checks without discriminating unfairly against individuals with past convictions. Familiarizing yourself with these guidelines will make it easier to use reporting tools. Be aware of any local restrictions, such as "ban the box" laws, that prohibit you from inquiring about criminal history data at certain stages in the application process.
The first time you look at a background screening report, you may struggle to parse the unfamiliar terms. However, a bit of research and practice makes it easy to quickly understand all the important details about a subject's criminal history, including case disposition. Although related to sentencing, this separate status indicator has a critical role to play in revealing facts about a criminal case that could influence your decision-making. Review the relevant terms, know what to look for, and equip yourself with the skills to use background checks effectively.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments