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What Is A Criminal Background Check and How Does It Work?

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People run a criminal background check so they can know what happened in someone’s past.

This information helps them assess if the person would be a risk to hire or allow to rent a property.

But having a criminal record doesn’t automatically exclude you from jobs or property.

People also look at how long it’s been since your last offense and might ask for references to see how you’ve acted since then.


What Is a Criminal Background Check?

A criminal background check pulls data from city, county, state, and federal records to compile a report.

The background screening can include misdemeanors and felonies, but there are different types of searches to run.

Some searches only return crimes that led to arrests and convictions.

Others will pull up traffic infractions, as well.

Types of Criminal Background Checks

There are different types of criminal background checks depending on how far the employer wants to search.

Certain checks will give you select information, while others paint a broader picture.

County Criminal Records

County criminal records search the zip code provided by the applicant.

The results can go back as far as seven years, but nothing before that time will show up on the official report.

Statewide Criminal Records

A statewide criminal background check will search a more extensive area than the county search, but not all states have their information online.

In that case, you’ll want to cover your bases by requesting other reports to get complete results.

National Criminal Database

The National Criminal Database is compliant with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, so the results are accurate.

This search covers more databases than the county and states will have access to, so it’s the most comprehensive option.

Results from this search will also pull data from the Office of Foreign Asset Control and the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

National Sexual & Violent Offender Search

A search with this scope checks all 50 states to see if the target person appears on any sexual offender or violent offender lists.

You can also check the sex registry online for immediate results.

Federal Crime Records

This search will find all records at the federal level.

It searches court cases for criminal cases and will find the sentence and outcome to include on the background check.

What Shows Up on a Criminal Background Check?

A criminal background check includes a variety of information, including:

  • Misdemeanors
  • Felonies
  • Pending charges
  • Convictions
  • Arrest warrants
  • Records of incarceration
  • Violations of probation

For each item on the report, there will be details about the date and type of offense.

The severity of the crime is also listed.

The date of the disposition and sentence result show up, as well.

What Information Will Employers Check?

The information an employer needs from a criminal background check depends on the job position.

Most employers will check on sex offender registry results, and if you’re working with children, that could definitely disqualify you.

If you’re going to be driving a company car or delivery van, the employer will look at your driving history.

Moving violations, accidents, and DUIs would be a red flag of criminal activity in this case.

They’ll also check how long it’s been since your last offense.

If it’s been several years, they might talk to you about how you’ve changed.

They could also ask for references and speak to your probation officer or previous employers, so they know that you’re serious about getting on the right path.

Who Can Request Criminal History Reports?

In general, anyone can get a copy of your criminal history record.

The information is a public record in most states since it goes through the courts.

Expunged or sealed records won’t come up on reports, but most crimes are publicly accessible.

These reports might have a limit of crimes within the past year or only crimes of a certain severity.

The legality of the information depends on its source and what the person is using it for.

Certain outlets are compliant with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, so the information you get is accurate, and you can use it for hiring employees or renting properties.

Employers can ask about your criminal history, but if they’re going to run a background check, they have to get your written permission first.

Government agencies and law enforcement, on the other hand, don’t have to have your consent to look at your record.

Why National Criminal Background Checks Are Important

Running national criminal background checks gives you a complete picture of potential employees.

By knowing someone’s criminal history record, you can make an educated decision about how they’ll fit into your workplace environment.

It will also help keep all your employees safe while building trust within the community with public safety.

How Do I Get Started With Criminal Background Checks?

You can get your own criminal background check, called your Identity History Summary, from the FBI.

From this report, you can review and correct your information.

It’s only for your knowledge—these reports aren’t legal to use for employment or professional licensing purposes.

Obtaining a Background Check Online (WATCH)

You can get a criminal history record online using WATCH or Washington Access to Criminal History.

You have to pay for each name you search for, even if they don’t find results for the target person.

The results are immediately available.

Many other states offer similar online databases.

Obtaining a Background Check by Mail

You can fill out the application and get a fingerprint card to get a complete background check.

You can go to specific locations to get this done, such as certain shipping stores or notaries.

Even though you’re mailing in the documentation, you can pay online with a credit card or send a money order or certified check with your fingerprints.

Obtaining a Background Check in Person

You can go to your local court clerk to get a copy of your background check for that county.

If you need statewide results, the state’s Bureau of Investigation is the place to go.

How Long Does a Criminal Background Check Take?

Most criminal background checks take up to three days, but some provide quick results.

Online searches can often give you immediate information, but you might have to verify it on your own to make sure it’s about the right person.

If you’re searching county, then state, then federal records, the process might take longer.

You’ll have to add in the time needed to get fingerprints made and sent to the FBI, then wait on the results.

Online resources like the sex offender registry will provide immediate results.

You can do these tasks independently while waiting for the complete report from an official outlet.

What Can I Do When My Criminal Background Check Came Up Incorrectly?

If you see incorrect information on your criminal background check, you can correct it.

Common mistakes include charges from someone with the same name showing up on your report.

Certain crimes might show up as the incorrect conviction type, such as a misdemeanor listed as a felony.

For people currently facing charges, ask your attorney to help you.

Correcting your record can prevent future convictions from being more severe.

Many states have a form to repair any mistakes on your record quickly.

You might have to write a letter highlighting the errors and explaining why they’re wrong.

If you’ve stayed out of legal trouble for years after your last conviction, you can try to get your record cleared or expunged.

Once it’s erased, no crimes will show up on your criminal background check.

When a potential employer asks you if you have a criminal record, you can say no and be honest.

Frequently Asked Questions

This broad overview of criminal background checks helps you understand what will show up on your record.

You also know that you have to give consent for a potential employer to run this check, but you have ways to look at your own and correct it, if necessary.

In case you still need answers, check out these frequently asked questions.

How frequently do employers perform criminal background checks?

An employer who performs a pre-employment criminal background check must run one on every potential employee.

Failure to do so could result in a discrimination lawsuit.

Whether the company performed a background check before hiring you or not, they can conduct one whenever they see fit.

Many businesses have a policy to run background checks every year, five years, or decade.

Sometimes, an employer might pick random employees to run background checks on one year and another group the following year.

Or they might check all employees periodically.

It’s a way of ensuring that everyone is acting right and protecting the company’s reputation.

Similar to drug testing, periodic background checks keep employees accountable.

However, if they do this, they have to inform you.

If it’s a new policy, they’ll have to get your permission before starting it.

Sometimes, this is in your employment contract, so you’ll want to check carefully.

You can always go to HR with any questions about the practice.

Do prisons run criminal background checks before visitation?

Yes, inmates have to send background check forms to any potential visitor before being cleared to visit.

The prison will run a background check on the person and then approve them for visits—or not.

If not yet convicted of a DUI, what will show up on a criminal background check?

Since there’s no conviction, the DUI won’t appear on your record.

Some background checks will show that there was an arrest but no conviction.

How can I run a legitimate criminal background check on someone?

If you only need the information for your peace of mind, you can run background checks using various websites and get accurate information.

However, to run a legal background check, you have to acquire written permission to run the check.

For criminal background checks that impact whether you hire someone or rent property to them, you have to tell them why they’re ineligible.

Otherwise, you’re not complying with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and the person could bring legal action against you.

Wrapping Up

Having a criminal history doesn’t prevent you from getting a job or renting a property.

Once you know what shows up on a criminal background check, you can get a copy of your record and look it over.

Knowing how to correct specific details or expunge your record could change your life.

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