How FBI Criminal Records Work
Criminal records are handled at the county level. When an individual is arrested, pulled over, or merely detained, that information is communicated to and processed by the appropriate county court. In some cases the individual is fingerprinted—but not in all cases.
Unfortunately, many states do not have appropriate software infrastructure that communicates information from all county courts within the state. Most do not have statewide repositories consisting of all criminal records handled within the state. Only 5.5% of U.S. states report the outcome of an arrest at least 90% to 100% of the time.
With one-third of felony arrests not resulting in a conviction, many employers viewing arrest records with no final disposition are left in muddy compliance water. Even records that have been expunged or sealed can show up as an arrest only—with no additional information. An FBI search works differently. The FBI does not dig deeper or search other databases to help supplement incomplete information. They rely solely on the state.
The Reality of FBI Background Checks
Most Americans think an FBI background check involves something like a private detective doing field work to find out every little detail about a person, with nothing slipping through the cracks. However, FBI background checks almost exclusively involve office work, with FBI employees basing their background check results solely on information found via the internet. In reality, the FBI has access to as much information or less than most criminal background check companies.
FBI Criminal Records Process
The purpose of an FBI background check is primarily to disclose a job applicant’s criminal history. The results of an FBI background check will often include all public federal misdemeanor convictions and felony convictions. So what does an FBI background check consist of? The background check will show basic information about the charge on an applicant’s record, as well as information about the conviction and any resulting prison or jail time.
What Does an FBI Background Check Show?
Are you wondering what shows up on an FBI criminal background check, or if arrests show up on a background check? An FBI background check typically shows the following information:
- Criminal charges, convictions, and incarceration
- Outstanding warrants
- Arrests that did not result in convictions (these remain on record for seven years)
- Addresses and phone numbers used on tax forms
However, the information above could be flawed or misleading. The vast majority of arrests are public record, so they may show up on a background check. Some states may restrict access to certain arrest information, and others may destroy or omit information if the subject in the case is found not guilty or if the claim is dismissed. It’s important to understand that just because the charge is on an applicant’s record, it may not be the same as a conviction. But that fact can be lost when an employer sees the “red flag” of an arrest on an FBI background check. Some states restrict interviewers from asking applicants about arrests because of this reason.
The following arrests may show up on FBI background checks:
The individual has been arrested and criminally charged, and the case is currently developing.
Arrest / Non-Conviction
The individual was arrested and charged, but found to be not guilty. In this case, charges may have also been dropped.
Arrest Record / Conviction
The individual was arrested, charged, and found guilty.
While this information can certainly be relevant for an employment background check, the data is not always timely or completely accurate. An arrest without a conviction may show up on an FBI background check, putting the job applicant’s reputation at risk even if it was a mistaken arrest or something that has been resolved within the seven-year time limit. Some of the information above, such as criminal charges or convictions, might not show the final court disposition, leading the employer with no choice but to think that the job applicant was found to be guilty or at-fault in court—even if they were found to be innocent.
Reasons Expungements Show Up On FBI Background Checks
When a charge is expunged from your record, it means it is modified, sealed, or destroyed completely by law enforcement. Once a charge is expunged, it should not be visible to anyone in the public who accesses the record. However, even when something is expunged, it could still be visible on a background check submitted by an employer.
An expunged charge might still be visible on an applicant’s background check in the following cases:
- The court did not inform the public that the charge was expunged
- The expungement order was not received by background check agencies
- The expungement order was only received by some background check agencies
An applicant may be frustrated by having an expunged charge still visible on their background check, as expungement usually means that the applicant does not need to disclose the charge to employers. In many cases, the candidate can dispute the results of a background check within 30 days. They can also provide your organization with information about the expunged charge.
Flaws Concerning FBI Search Results
The Justice Department admits that almost 50% of their background check records are incomplete and do not contain the final outcome of a case. The National Employment Law Project estimates that 1.8 million workers a year are subject to FBI background checks that include faulty or incomplete info, resulting in 600,000 workers being hurt by the misinformation that keeps them from employment.
Most of the time, the FBI search is relying on records of individuals who have been fingerprinted. Yet, many crimes in numerous states get processed without fingerprints. By relying on a fingerprint search, you miss out on all records not fingerprinted.
The Right Way To Do A Background Check
Instead of relying on the FBI, more accurate searches can be done using personal identifiers (name, DOB, SSN) at the correct source. The background check organization should also do other additional searches, like past employment verification, education verification, drug tests, and more.
A good background check should also look into:
- Local searches: These should be done at the county level and only at the state level if the state has a true statewide repository.
- Driving Records: In some states DUI’s are a driving record, not a criminal record.
- Nationwide criminal database: These searches are an inexpensive way of casting a net over the country to potentially find records in areas that the candidate has not lived in. Typically, this search also includes a nationwide sex offender registry search.