The Myth of the National Criminal Database

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If you’re a fan of movie or TV crime dramas, then you’re probably familiar with that one moment that always seems to happen in these works of fiction—when the lead detective orders a junior officer to “run a background check on the suspect” and, amazingly, a few clicks of the keyboard later, they’ve got everything they need—a detailed criminal background, complete address history, known aliases, and even a recent driver’s license photograph—to catch the bad guy.

In real life, it’s not that simple. Although there are databases that compile criminal records, the most comprehensive of these—the one used by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—is actually a collection of multiple databases known as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

The NCIC holds 11.7 million records and averages 7.9 million transactions daily, as of 2011. Unfortunately, the NCIC is also surprisingly incomplete, containing only 50 to 55 percent of all available criminal records in the U.S.

The primary reason the NCIC is missing so many records is that it is the responsibility of multiple primary sources—like the thousands of municipal, county and federal courts throughout the country—to enter, modify, and remove their own information.

As a result, the records are only as thorough as the individuals responsible for maintaining them. Add to that the many differences that exist among various jurisdictions as to how crimes are classified (e.g., felony vs. misdemeanor), and it becomes more obvious why the data in the NCIC isn’t entirely reliable.

Another common misconception is that the NCIC is broadly available, when, in fact, access to it is typically limited to law enforcement or other very specialized requests.

For the purposes of an employment background check, organizations must look to additional sources of criminal record information. So what is an employer to do when a criminal background check isn’t as easy it looks on TV?

Generally, there are two ways that searches can be conducted for criminal records: one is by going directly to the primary source of the information (e.g., the county courthouse or federal district court where a crime was originally prosecuted) and the other is by searching an aggregated database.

Regarding the specific records they maintain, primary sources will generally provide an employer with the most accurate, up-to-date, and complete information possible—making them the most helpful and most reliable for making employment decisions.

However, searching source by source may be expensive, time-consuming, and not cast the widest geographical net—which is where database searches have certain advantages. They can effectively and affordably aggregate data and make it searchable and accessible via an online portal.

However, databases are not infallible, for example, if some sources do not report into them or if the information in the database is not updated regularly (like with the NCIC).

Consequently, while database searches may provide useful “tip or lead” information to help uncover details of an individual’s criminal history, those tips or leads should then be verified at the primary source.

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HireRight is a leading provider of on-demand employment background checks, drug and health screening, and electronic Form I-9 and E-Verify solutions that help employers automate, manage and control background screening and related programs.

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The HireRight Blog is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be comprehensive, and is not a substitute for and should not be construed as legal advice. HireRight does not warrant any statements in the HireRight Blog. Any statutes or laws cited herein should be read in their entirety. You should direct to your own experienced legal counsel questions involving your organization’s compliance with or interpretation or application of laws or regulations and any additional legal requirements that may apply.