The criminal justice system can be overwhelming for employers and individuals exploring background check services. 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 background check reports as you vet candidates for employment or tenancy.

The term disposition on a background check refers to the status or result of a criminal charge. It gives you more details about the outcome of a case above a simple “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict.

What Does Disposition Mean in Legal Terms? A Quick Definition.

Disposition is the criminal justice system’s method of noting how a case was resolved or how it will soon proceed. On background check reports, disposition tells you the status of all a candidate’s previous court cases (dismissed, convicted, ongoing, etc).

Understanding the different types of dispositions is an essential skill to have when reading a criminal background report. Disposition is not the same as sentencing and does not tell you the whole story. However, it’s still worth considering during pre-employment background screening.

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 information items 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 you will generally 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?

An “awaiting disposition” case has not concluded its journey through the justice system. When an applicant’s 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 indicate that the disposition is pending, meaning court delays are stopping the judge from reaching a final verdict. It may also imply that the proceedings are ongoing. However, some cases with an “awaiting disposition” status may have already been concluded–it often takes time for court data to update in criminal record repositories.

What Does Consideration of Disposition Mean?

Sometimes, you may see a case status called “consideration of disposition.” This is a note court clerks make to indicate that a case was extended to allow more time for the accused to consider a plea bargain. It means the final disposition has not yet been reached.

What Is a Disposition Hearing?

A disposition hearing is a court appearance during which the judge provides the legal status of a case. It may happen after the trial if the defendant had one, or after their arraignment (when they are formally accused of a crime).

During a disposition hearing, the accused can enter or change their plea, which could influence their case disposition status. The individual’s defense attorney may use the hearing 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.

What is a Disposition Date?

The disposition date on a background check refers to the day the court provided the latest disposition on the case. That may mean the date a candidate was convicted or acquitted, or the day the case was dismissed or concluded.

Is a Disposition the Same as a Sentence?

No. There is a distinct difference between disposition and sentencing. A disposition on a background check only tells you the outcome of a case in broad terms; it does not tell you the consequences of that outcome. When someone is convicted, the sentencing phase determines their punishment’s type, length, and nature.

Sentencing doesn’t apply when the court dismisses a charge, or the prosecution declines to pursue a case further. On background check reports, sentencing information typically appears directly below a listed criminal charge, along with the conviction date and the length of a prison or probation term.

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.

Disposition Pending: The case is still active in the court system, and no outcome or additional information is available. A “pending” status on a background check may indicate a court case that was only recently resolved.

No Charge/Declined/Dropped: The court chose not to prosecute an individual due to lack of evidence, declined hearings, or dropped 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 open 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 originally entered a not-guilty plea. Other systems only report the conviction or acquittal status and not how the court reached that outcome.

Is Disposition the Same as a Conviction?

It’s important to remember that a disposition is not the same as a conviction. When you see the term “disposition” on a background check, it simply means the candidate was involved in legal proceedings in the past. It does not necessarily mean they were convicted, sentenced, or plead guilty in court. Although some background checks omit non-convictions, sometimes charges without sentencing data will appear on reports.

When Is Disposition Relevant Information?

Dispositions can provide a critical point of context for evaluating a charge and its impact on an applicant’s suitability. 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.” For example, an applicant with active court cases may not be the right fit for an open position at your company.

Why Understanding Disposition Matters

As an element of criminal background checks, disposition provides employers 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 allows you to evaluate the impact of a candidate’s criminal history on your considerations. When allowed by local law, they also give you topics to discuss in interviews with candidates so that they can provide context for what the report says. The goal is to conduct a fair process that safeguards against negligent hiring.

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 them from becoming a source of discriminatory behavior. Knowing how to consider data, such as a criminal case disposition correctly, 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 to give the individual an opportunity to explain themselves.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also offers guidelines on how to use background checks without discriminating 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 requesting criminal history data at certain stages in the application process.

Conclusion

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.

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Jim Daxner

About Jim Daxner The author

Jim is a Consultative Senior Executive with 25 years of experience pioneering strategies, programs, systems, and products to drive superior client experiences, boost customer loyalty, capture new revenue opportunities, build strong strategic partnerships, and expand into new channels.

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