National Criminal Databases

National criminal databases – also called multi-jurisdictional databases – can be a key part of the background screening process. Where most employers start their criminal record checks at the county or state level, multi-jurisdictional databases typically offer a nationwide cross-section of criminal record information. Using these checks in a background check helps identify unsuitable applicants because they search a wider pool of information than is readily available for standard criminal history searches.

However, many people are also wary of national criminal databases for various reasons. Some employers aren’t sure exactly what a national or multi-jurisdictional criminal database is. Others aren’t convinced that searching these databases is necessary. There may even be a few people who want to use a national database but can’t quite tell what separates the excellent database checks from the merely passable ones.

All these concerns are valid. Still, the fact remains that a credible and well-maintained national criminal database can reveal a much larger picture of an individual’s criminal history than a traditional search alone.

What is a national criminal database?

First, let’s address the simplest of the above concerns: the people who aren’t sure what a national criminal database is. 

Though it sounds self-explanatory, there is more than meets the eye to this particular type of background check resource. Unlike a county criminal record check, which goes directly to the primary source of most criminal record information – the county courts – multi-jurisdictional databases are collections of data from different sources. A typical national criminal database will compile information from various jurisdictional sources, including county courthouses, state court support agencies, state and local corrections departments, state sex offender registries, federal security agencies, etc. 

This kind of database provides in-depth scrutiny of an applicant’s criminal history. Where county or state record searches are inherently limited by geography, databases transcend county and state lines to offer a national approach to background checks. 

National criminal databases are created and operated by two main groups: the federal government and private firms. 

One example of the federal government operating a national criminal database is the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), operated by the FBI. This database helps law enforcement and criminal justice agencies find fugitives, locate missing persons, and track down stolen property. Note that the NCIC database is only available to some government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels. The database is unavailable to most private employers. 

Another example of a federally run national criminal database is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This database is used specifically to provide information on potential firearm buyers. Searching the NICS database is a way for firearm sellers to make sure that the buyer has not been convicted of a crime punishable by at least a year’s imprisonment, has never been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, has never been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Armed Forces and so forth. Similar to the NICS database, the NCIC is not accessible to the general public. 

Because most private employers cannot use federal databases, private firms have stepped in to offer national criminal record information searches. Specifically, private background check providers can create their own national criminal databases and then use them in their clients’ background reports.

To assemble their proprietary databases, background check companies can pull information from several sources. Depending on the provider and the database, these sources can include county court records, sex offender registries, terrorist watch lists, and more. Because there are so many potential sources for information, no two private companies are alike when it comes to sources they utilize or the criminal records represented in their searches.

Additionally, each private background check company offering a database search will have a different method and timeline for loading the source information into their database. The quicker the sources are loaded and updated, the better. There will always be some lag time between when a criminal record is loaded into a county court database and when that same record appears in a proprietary national criminal database. The less lag time, the more value the national search has because it is more current.

As such, clients looking for national criminal database searches should inquire about how often those databases are updated. Similarly, and logically, you will want the database with the most data sources because it means that your search is broader and more likely to find any red flags about a background check subject.

Why should I use a instant search of a national criminal record database?

The second concern that needs to be addressed is the belief that a county criminal history search will do the same job as a national criminal database. Most employers start the pre-employment background check process by searching for a candidate’s criminal records at local courts. The reasoning here is simple: A person is statistically more likely to be convicted of a crime near where they live and work than abroad. Therefore, county criminal checks often have the best chance of surfacing a person’s criminal past. 

The problem with this reasoning is that it assumes the subject of the search does not leave the county or counties in which they live and work. For most people, this assumption does not hold true. Some people regularly travel beyond their home counties for work reasons. Others frequently return to the same destinations to visit family or because they have vacation homes there. Other travel patterns may take a person across the country or worldwide. 

Of course, it is not reasonable to run a background check everywhere a person has ever set foot. It is also fair to assume that if a person visited a vacation destination once for three or four days, the chances of them having a criminal record in that area are slim. However, to exercise due diligence in a background check, it should be assumed that they might have committed a crime there if a person went somewhere with any frequency. By this logic, it can’t be assumed that it is safe to merely perform a statewide criminal history search. State boundaries are often as easy to cross as county boundaries. 

National criminal databases are an effective solution to this conundrum. They allow employers to look beyond county and state lines without ordering individual background checks for a dozen or more individual counties or states. In short, they are an effective way to expand the reach of a background check significantly without a corresponding increase in effort, logistical difficulty, or overall cost. 

Furthermore, many national criminal databases include sex offender registries, national and international exclusion or “watch” lists, and more. While these searches may be offered as a separate service, they are all essential tools in your hiring process and should be utilized. Depending on the provider, it may be cheaper to simply request their national criminal database rather than asking for every portion of the pie.

Are instant criminal searches accurate and thorough?

One of the benefits of a multijurisdictional database search is that they often offer instant processing because the databases have been put together in advance. There are often manual steps to the process when running a county criminal check. In some cases, background check providers must even send “court runners” to county courts in person. These court runners then interface with court clerks, who manually search and pull criminal records. In comparison, national databases often act almost like the “Google” of the background check world, allowing users to input the subject’s name and identifying information and delivering almost-instant results. 

Some people assume that instant checks are more or less reliable than checks that take longer to process. In truth, how fast a check takes to process is not indicative of how thorough the background check is. When speaking of national criminal databases, the true accuracy tests are 1) the number of records included in the database; and 2) how often the database is updated. 

As a general rule, an instant criminal search is only as accurate as the local, state, or federal agency reporting the data. Private entities like backgroundchecks.com compile multijurisdictional databases from many different sources. Our ability to update our database depends on how often a county court or state repository updates its data. As such, we have limited control over update frequency, as it is set and varies by each data source. Some sources update as frequently as daily. Others only do so semi-annually. We recommend you explore our interactive coverage map for a source-specific update frequency, which lists the update frequency in the source descriptions.

Overall, though, data strength is one of many aspects that sets backgroundchecks.com apart from our competitors. We go to great lengths to acquire and maintain our data and offer as wide a reach of criminal record information as possible. Additionally, we pride ourselves on updating our database with new records within five days of receipt, on average.

Some people argue that no true national criminal background check database exists in terms of thoroughness. Others doubt the effectiveness of these databases. As with anything, it’s the highest quality national database checks that best negate these criticisms and make a multi-jurisdictional search a valuable background check service. 

When questioning whether national criminal history searches exist or not, skeptics (rightfully) point out that there is no true all-encompassing nationwide database of criminal records. Although movies and television often depict criminal searches in this fashion, the truth is that no central location exists for the collection and storage of ALL local, state, and federal criminal records together. As such, the criticism that there is no such thing as a “national” criminal database is technically true.

Furthermore, even if there were a central location to collect all criminal records, some would say it might not be kept up to date. As of the 2020 Census, there are currently 3,143 counties and county-equivalents (such as boroughs, parishes, etc.) in the United States and Washington, D.C., plus another 100 county-equivalents in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam. If there were an actual nationwide database, some records would probably not make it through the many levels of federal bureaucracy – such as in the case of the NCIC. The larger that database becomes, the more challenging it is to have an accurate, fully up-to-date database.

While these claims and criticisms are accurate and fair, they still miss the point. A national database check aims to perform a broad search to give employers and other clients more peace of mind. The result may not be as thorough as searching some idyllic database that holds every criminal record in American history. However, it is also much more thorough than searching a few county or state records and calling it good, and certainly much preferable to doing nothing at all.

What shows on a criminal background check?

Criminal records and subject demographics will vary based on the data source with our database checks. For instance, some data sources provide full dates of birth for each subject; others may only provide the year of birth or no birth date information at all.

Other information associated with criminal records also varies depending on the source. Details such as plea, disposition, and degree of offense will be thoroughly provided on some checks. In other cases, the data source may provide obscure or very few details about the record.

How far do criminal history checks go?

The answer to this question varies depending on the state. In general, seven years is the average lookback period for background checks in the United States, though some states do allow a 10-year range. 

How current is the data I am searching?

Another argument against national criminal databases is that they are not always updated frequently, so the information may be outdated or even incorrect. The main thing to understand is that some databases may suffer from a lack of updates, but other providers make it a point to update their databases frequently. 

We collect publicly available information from hundreds of data sources, including county courts, state administrative of the courts, state department of corrections, county courts, and many more. We have limited control over their update frequency since it is set by and varies by each data source. Some sources only make information available on a quarterly or semi-annual basis. Providers should update most sources monthly and critical sources (such as sex offender registry records) at least twice a month at a minimum. It’s advisable to compare the frequency of updates and the updating processes of different providers. 

Data strength is one of many aspects that sets backgroundchecks.com apart from our competitors, and we go to great lengths to acquire and maintain our data. We continually evaluate our processes to ensure timely and quality results and an expansive collection of records.

Does no records found mean that my subject does not have crimes on their record?

When you execute a database search through backgroundchecks.com, know that there is always a possibility your search will result in a “no records found” message. There are several reasons why zero records might be found in a database search.

  • You entered incorrect information like a misspelled first or last name and/or the incorrect date of birth.
  • You entered a hyphenated name, middle initial in the first name box, a suffix such as JR, SR II, III, IV at the end of the last name or a special character in the first or last name box.
  • The search was conducted by name and date of birth; but available public records do not associate this name and/or date of birth with the record.
  • The subject searched is a minor and we do not search juvenile records.
  • You entered a hyphenated name. Our database does not provide results for hyphenated names, therefore, you must enter the last name with a space rather than a hyphen (-) or you may use the last part of the hyphenated name for the best results. Do not add any generations such as Jr. Sr. II or III.
  • You entered two first names. We are referring to names like Bobbie Sue, Amy Lynn and Billie Joe - please do not use them. Use only the first part of the two-part name as any extension of the name will be reported. Example, if you are searching Amy Lynn - Just use Amy and if there is a match with Amy Lynn it will come back.
  • You entered a nickname. Court records use the subject's full legal name, not nicknames.
  • You entered a middle name as a first name. Court records use the subject's first name, not a middle name that the subject goes by.
  • The record you might have expected to find is not within the agreed available covered jurisdictions. backgroundcheck.com, like all criminal record database search companies, offers limited criminal record coverage, and most likely the known record is not within our coverage acknowledged in our terms and conditions. The fact is, not all county, or municipal courts nationally will share their information with third party companies or do not have the records indexed in a searchable format. For an upfront understanding of our state and county coverage, visit our interactive coverage map.
  • The record you might have expected to find is expunged or sealed by court order.
  • The subject indeed has no criminal record.


So, how big is your database?

Our US OneSEARCH database currently contains over 650 million criminal records derived from a comprehensive list of sources and ranks as one of the largest criminal conviction databases in the industry, based on comparison of the number of sources of conviction data for online criminal conviction databases that make their source lists publicly available.

Verification requirements

Because California, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota and Indiana currently require us and other consumer reporting agencies to verify criminal matches found during our instant database search directly with the source before reporting them, we are prevented from providing criminal records instantly in these five states if we find potentially matching records. If we find no records, the report will still be completed instantly.

 

Is a verified search still an instant search? Yes and no.

A criminal record search using our US OneVERIFY search option, will still return clear results back instantly, but when we discover criminal records that are a possible match, the system automatically changes the status to ‘in progress’ while our quality assurance department verifies each hit with the respective source. Depending on the number of hits and the response time from each search this can take a few days. Our average turnaround time for a verified search that initially has hits, is 1-3 business days.

Why are federal criminal records not included in an instant database search?

The federal courthouses do not make their criminal records available to private criminal database operators.

Do your reports provide date of birth and social security number information?

No, social security number information is private and is not publicly available. However, date of birth information is commonly found in public records. Many of our criminal record data sources include date of birth in the information they provide.

Do I get the same amount of detail as a live criminal record search at a court?

Opponents of national criminal databases argue that they don’t go into as much detail as a county search would. This is true. While the traditional county criminal search is much more detailed, national criminal databases cover a much larger geographic area and can offer a broader look into an individual’s criminal history. The most important thing to understand when using a national criminal database is that these databases are not intended to replace a county criminal search. Instead, it is meant to provide employers with a more affordable way to include a broad view search at a first step in the screening process.

To learn more about backgroundchecks.com's coverage of counties in our criminal database, explore our interactive coverage map.

Explore interactive coverage map

Crimes And Criminal Records

What types of records will show up on a national criminal database check, you may ask? Or what actually qualifies as a “criminal record”?

By simple definition, a crime is an act or omission that the law makes punishable. A crime can also breach a legal duty that is then treated as the subject matter of a criminal proceeding. Common law in the United States recognizes only two classes of crimes: serious crimes, or felonies, and minor crimes, or misdemeanors.

What is a criminal record?

A criminal record or crime record summarizes an individual’s run-ins with law enforcement agencies. This type of record provides details of all arrests, convictions, sentences, or parole violations a person has accumulated and dismissals of charges or not guilty verdicts. In addition, the criminal record may include information about height, weight, eye and hair color, identifying marks, alternate names used by the subject, different dates of birth, social security numbers used, fingerprints, race, and state and federal identification numbers. There is no single repository for all this information about a person. 

To learn more about what types of information a background check includes, read our full article on the matter, What shows up on a criminal background check? 

Are criminal records public information?

Yes. All criminal records, save those formally “sealed,” are part of the public record. Because these records are public, employers can search them freely as part of the pre-employment process. However, if a record has been sealed, it is no longer accessible to the public and can typically only be viewed by law enforcement agencies or other specific, privileged entities. While the terms “sealed” and “expunged” are often used interchangeably regarding criminal records, an expunged record no longer exists. At the same time, a limited list of parties can still view a sealed record. 

What type of criminal record checks and criminal record information is available?

We collect criminal record information from various federal, state, and county public records. Our sources include state police departments, departments of corrections, county courts, offender registries, municipal jurisdictions, federal fugitive files, state courts, district courts, traffic courts, state and county criminal record repositories, prison parole and release files, probation records, records from other state agencies, and Interpol public records. We do not report on police arrest records.

Our database includes both misdemeanor records and felony records. 

What are State Criminal Records?

Most states have statewide repositories that collect criminal records from all counties in that state. Why is a state criminal record vital on a background check? These checks can be a valuable means of expanding the scope of a background check beyond county lines and discovering criminal records outside the immediate area where the subject lives and works. At backgroundchecks.com, we can currently process repository searches in house for 30 states, using different electronic access systems in place in those states. For another 14 states, we must submit requests to the state for repository searches. Finally, some restrictions prevent us from accessing the state repository systems in six states (California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio and West Virginia). 

What are Federal Criminal Records?

Federal criminal records are different from records stored at county courts or in state repositories. Those criminal records represent violations of state law and are charged, tried, convicted, and filed by county courts. Meanwhile, federal criminal records represent violations of federal law and are handled by U.S. District Courts.

Crimes committed on a federal level include drug trafficking or other charges with similar ramifications. Note that some federal criminal records may originate from state or county-level crimes, and those records may reside in county or state repositories.

What does the criminal record search reveal about the severity of the offense?

Most jurisdictions classify an offense as an infraction, misdemeanor, or a felony. “What is an infraction?” and “What is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony?” are common questions in the background check world. 

  1. Infraction - An infraction is governed primarily by state laws, which vary by state. It is typically not considered to be a crime. Rather than being subject to a jail term upon conviction, someone found guilty of an infraction fine generally is assessed a fine. Infractions can include disorderly conduct and public nuisance offenses. Traffic offenses are usually infractions, except for more serious offenses, such as "driving under the influence" or "hit and run" violations. So, do traffic tickets show up on criminal background checks? No, because they are infractions. But will a DUI show up on a criminal background check? Yes, because they are classified as either misdemeanor or felony. 
  2. Misdemeanor - Misdemeanors are usually considered a less serious or minor offense. The misdemeanor is a crime punishable by incarceration, typically in a local confinement facility. The maximum incarceration period is usually limited to one year or less. However, a few states classify a misdemeanor as an offense carrying a sentence of two or even five years, depending on severity. 
  3.     Felony - Felony offenses are considered more serious than misdemeanor crimes. Typically, a felony carries a penalty of incarceration from one year to life, usually in state prison. Certain violent felonies may even include the death penalty as a possible sentence in some states.

What does the criminal record say about the outcome of a case?

  •   Conviction - A conviction is the outcome of a plea bargain or trial in which a criminal defendant is found guilty. A judge or jury may convict a defendant in a criminal trial if the prosecutor proves their case beyond a reasonable doubt. A conviction is evidence that the defendant committed the offense. 
  •   Acquittal - Acquit means to find a defendant in a criminal case not guilty. The decision to exonerate the defendant may be made by a jury or a judge after trial. The U.S. justice system demands that a prosecutor prove a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A decision to acquit means that the judge or jury had a reasonable doubt about the defendant's guilt. This reasonable doubt may be based on exculpatory evidence or a lack of evidence to prove guilt. Because of the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy, once a defendant has been acquitted of a crime, they cannot be retried for the same matter again. In some instances, a person acquitted of a crime may have expunged records of their criminal proceedings. An acquittal is not evidence that the defendant committed the offense. 
  •   Dismissed - A criminal case can be dismissed for various reasons. The most common reason for dismissal is that the prosecutor decides not to proceed with the prosecution. A dismissal often results in a criminal record entry of "nolle pros,” an abbreviation of the Latin term "nolle prosequi", which means "I do not want to continue." Less frequently, the court will dismiss the case. A dismissed case is not evidence that the defendant committed the offense. 
  •   Diversion or Deferred Adjudication - Deferred adjudication is available in some jurisdictions for certain offenses. Typically, the court defers adjudication of guilt if the defendant enters a diversionary program. These programs may involve probation, treatment programs, and/or community supervision. If all the conditions of probation are met for the allotted time handed down by the court, the offender can avoid a formal conviction and sentence. In some jurisdictions, there will be no permanent record of the crime. Typically, the charge will be dismissed at the end of the probationary period, and no record of conviction will result. Deferred adjudication may be available to eligible defendants upon recommendation by the prosecutor or at the court’s discretion. In many jurisdictions, the defendant must plead guilty to be eligible for the program. Then, if the defendant fails the program, the judge enters a conviction based on the guilty plea. A conviction after deferral is evidence that the defendant committed the offense. 

In particular, many people are confused about dismissed cases or acquittals and how they factor into a criminal record. For additional context, read our previous post on this subject,  Charged But Not Convicted: Do Dismissed Cases Show on Background Checks?

 

Can background checks see pending charges?

Yes, a pending criminal charge will appear on a criminal information check. A criminal case takes time to work its way through the court system. A pending case is not evidence that the defendant committed the offense. Instead, it is evidence that the case is still in the midst of court proceedings. A defendant with a pending criminal case may be unwilling to discuss the details of the alleged offense during the case. 

While pending cases can and do show up on criminal history checks, though, there can be some variation in how long it takes a background check to flag them. Read this post to learn more: How Long Does It Take for a Pending Charge to Show up on a Background Check?

 

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