The Ins and Outs of County, Statewide and Federal Criminal Searches
Understanding background screening.
County, Federal and Statewide Criminal Searches all provide distinct layers of insight into a candidate’s criminal history. They are great tools when utilized individually but have even greater potential for discovery when combined. The searches vary not only in the information which they provide, but also in the process by which the information is obtained. The manner in which courts handle public access requests varies greatly from state to state and sometimes even county to county. Some states require counties to handle public access requests uniformly while other states delegate the decision of how to process such requests to individual counties. The process of moving all case information online is very expensive. Many states that experience budget deficiencies find it difficult to fund such an endeavor and sometimes even tell individual counties that they must come up with the budget themselves. This adds to the variance in methods to request information and often extends turnaround time due to information not being available online. Unfortunately, the court system is not a business working hard for Consumer Reporting Agencies such as USAFact. The court clerks on whom we often rely are the same clerks providing information to lawyers, judges, and other public employees. The heavy workloads of these clerks can add to the turnaround time of background checks.
Case files are rarely as concise as the information USAFact provides in our background check reports. Our researchers have to spend time going through lengthy files to pull pertinent and reportable information. Case reportability will vary according to state laws and permissible purpose. The TAT of a report can be affected by the format of the information obtained. At times, the “source” information is not reportable in raw format, requiring expert review, and thus a report that encountered a delayed TAT will actually come back to the client with no reportable criminal records. Important Translation: A delayed report should never be simply assumed to have convictions.
County Criminal Searches
- County Criminal Searches provide the most up to date case information available.
- USAFact searches the highest county court in the jurisdiction ordered. The service always includes a search for felonies and also includes misdemeanors when they are housed in the same court as felonies.
- Municipal courts are not included in a County Criminal Search. Municipal cases are decided by judges as opposed to juries and can only impose monetary fines in terms of punishment. Currently, Municipal Court searches can be done on a case by case basis.
- Due to space constraints, some courts are moving case files that are over five years old offsite to storage facilities. Delays will occur when we need to retrieve court case details from any case that is stored offsite.
- Common names may delay TAT of results.
Clerk Searches: USAFact provides the candidate’s information to a clerk of the court and are at their mercy to receive a response. While our researchers can follow up, we have to respect defined TATs set by the courts. Some clerks might be able to do the search on the spot and some might tell our researcher to come back for the results at a later date and/or time.
Open Access Courts: Researchers can utilize court computers to pull information. Depending on the court structure, only limited information may be available. In those instances, our researchers must go to the clerk of the court to obtain full case details.
Online Access: Case information is available entirely online. Information is obtained quickly but must still be reviewed thoroughly prior to being presented to our clients.
Federal District Criminal Searches
- The Federal Court System is tied to an electronic index known as PACER.
- The number of Federal Districts in a state varies and depends on the size of the state.
- This search is done by name only. When cases are located, additional identifiers must be compared to determine whether the case belongs to the given candidate. USAFact may have to contact public entities to obtain additional information:
- Common names may delay TAT of results.
Statewide Criminal Searches
- Each state maintains a criminal record repository. However, how it is accessed differs greatly from state to state.
- Some states require additional releases to be signed, and in some instances notarized, for the Statewide Criminal Search to be performed
- If the county and state have a combined court system, USAFact recommends those as “good state searches”. When doing a Statewide Criminal Search in one of these states, there is no need to run additional county criminal searches within the same state. The following states utilize combined court systems, and are approved for use in hiring decisions without additional county level record verification at USAFact: NC, WA, OR, HI, UT, CO, SD, AR, AL, NY, NJ, MD, CT & DE, PA, MA and VA. If the counties and state do not use a combined court system, we do not recommend running statewide searches in those jurisdictions as “standalone” products (color coded in white in the map below). It is still a great idea to order the statewide search, as it can cast a wider net to review a candidate’s history, but any information obtained should then be confirmed for accuracy at the county level.
- Some states do not allow Consumer Reporting Agencies access to their Criminal Record repositories. USAFact calls these “closed states” as we cannot offer a statewide criminal search in those jurisdictions. These states are: CA, AZ, NV, OH, WY, LA, and WV.