In my line of work as a private investigator, I’m often asked to do “FBI nationwide background checks” for private clients, to assure them that their persons of interest do not have any skeletons in their closets. Sadly, this is when I explain that a nationwide background check does not exist, meaning that a fingerprint check is not adequate for employment screenings or investigative purposes.
FBI Fingerprint Records
The FBI’s fingerprint records database comprises arrest records, criminal case disposition histories, and fingerprints of individuals. Since the FBI relies on thousands of courts, police departments, and other government agencies to submit data, the records maintained by the FBI are not a result of any specific FBI investigation; rather, they are a collection point for data that has been submitted by various cooperating agencies. The resulting fingerprint database is therefore only as good as the information submitted.
The Idea of Nationwide Background Checks Is an Illusion
In a nutshell: accessing the FBI fingerprint database does not constitute a nationwide background check. And to be fair, the database was not created or intended for that purposes. According to the 2006 Attorney General’s Report on Criminal History Background Checks, ” No single source exists that provides complete and up-to-date information about a person’s criminal history.” The report goes on to say that only 50 percent of all arrest records have dispositions listed. This means that for those government agencies and employers relying on FBI arrest records and fingerprint records, 50 percent of all records received contain incomplete, missing, or inaccurate information. Disposition information is submitted by federal, state, and county courts. Many states do not forward case dispositions to the FBI; and those that do, courts and prosecutors often fail to provide follow-up information to the FBI after cases have been disposed of.
What’s more, a vast number of possible criminal arrests will never be found through checking FBI fingerprint or criminal history records, because not all arrests result in the individual being fingerprinted. Most states don’t require fingerprinting for certain misdemeanor offenses, and there are two states that allow an individual who has been charged with a felony offense to be cited and released without fingerprinting.
For employers and applicants who “rely on FBI fingerprint database records to check criminal history as a condition of employment, inaccurate and incomplete fingerprint database records present a HUGE problem. A 2015 Government Accountability Office Report to Congress on Criminal History Records estimated that approximately 600,000 applicants or workers a year could be prejudiced by information provided by these inaccurate background checks. What’s worse, 70 percent of the states audited by the FBI failed to provide applicants with proper notification concerning their rights to challenge or correct criminal history records, thereby providing no remedy to overcome the prejudice.
For law enforcement agencies who rely upon FBI fingerprint records and criminal history information, investigators and their respective agencies are also at a severe disadvantage. Whether the investigator is looking to determine a suspect’s criminal history, vet a confidential source, or conduct a background check on a person acting as a secure business contact, this tactic allows important facts to remain hidden if he or she is relying on the FBI’s database rather than proper and more global background screening techniques.
There is no one source available to conduct a nationwide background check. Individuals, employers, and law enforcement agencies must become educated concerning proper background check techniques if they are to fairly determine an applicant’s admissibility, investigate crimes, and eliminate vulnerabilities presented by confidential sources and secure business contacts.