Ohio Police Officers Indicted for Unlawful Use of Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 12/4/2014

In most cases, background checks are used by employers to learn more about applicants and determine whether or not they are fit to work a specific job. These background checks are regulated by bodies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or by the rules laid forth by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. But who regulates the people in charge of actually running these background checks? Who makes sure that those people don't abuse the access they have to criminal records, driving records, court documents, and other sensitive files?

Evidently, that question still needs to be answered. It's an especially sizable problem in Ohio's Cuyahoga County, where two police officers and one deputy sheriff were recently indicated by a grand jury for unlawful use of background checks. Because of their police force positions, the three individuals had access to a secure computer system allowing for the search of confidential criminal records. All three are now facing felony criminal charges for running background checks not associated with their work.

Remarkably, there was no collusion between the two officers and the deputy. Each perpetrator acted independently, using the system to run unauthorized checks on people in their lives. Some of these checks were run on family members; others were run on friends; some were even executed to check up on potential dates. All were a gross invasion of privacy and a major abuse of power.

All told, the three officers were indicted on dozens of counts of unauthorized use of property. That was the primary charge, though the deputy sheriff in the case was also indicted on charges of tampering with records, forgery, and possession of criminal tools. In addition to running unauthorized checks, the deputy had also forged a letter about a prospective employee of the Sheriff's Department. Not wanting the candidate to be considered for a job with the department, the deputy forged a disparaging letter, printed it on a letterhead from the applicant's former employer, and mailed it to the Sheriff's Department.

Considering the sweeping nature of the indictments, these three Cuyahoga County police officers will likely face harsh punishments for their actions. The three separate cases have raised other questions, though, and they should be concerning for privacy advocates. First of all, how many police officers are abusing power like this? The fact that three officers in a single department were using the background check system for their own purpose, and doing it separately, doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the gatekeepers of these systems.

The other question, then, is whether or not police officers should even have access to these background check systems. Perhaps giving the background check power to only a handful of people per police department would help to curb corruption and abuse of power? Or perhaps the system should be updated to track every search that is made by each officer, and to ping the ones that look suspicious.


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