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3 Critical Steps to Conducting a Background Check

Understanding the U.S. Court System

The United States court system is actually made up of several court systems: a federal system and 50 state systems. Each has its own organization and processes. All are multi-tiered. Usually, legal cases begin in a lower court and sometimes work their way up to a higher court. A percentage of cases initiated in a state court system may end up in the federal court system. Most States have two levels of trial courts:

1) Trial courts with limited jurisdiction —which can include municipal courts, magistrate courts, and lower county courts which hear minor criminal cases and traffic violations; and

2) Courts of general jurisdiction include circuit courts, superior courts, district courts, or courts of common pleas, depending on your state —which hears lawsuits that involve greater amounts of money or more serious types of crimes than the cases heard in trial courts of limited jurisdiction.

Federal courts

Most of the federal court system is divided into districts and circuits. There is at least one federal district in every state, but populous States can have multiple districts. The Constitution only allows certain kinds of cases to be heard by the federal courts. These courts are limited to cases that involve Issues that involve Issues of Constitutional law, certain issues between residents of different States, Issues between U.S. citizens and foreigners, Issues of both federal and state law.

Best Practice: Conducting Criminal Research for Employment

Just by advertising that you have a criminal background check process in place will dissuade many potential applicants with a criminal record from even bothering to apply. This increases the quality of your pool of applicants without spending a penny.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of courts to cover when conducting a background investigation. The U.S. is a big country with approximately 5,700 County courts alone! In order to conduct a background investigation that is both comprehensive and cost-effective, it is important to understand and follow certain basic guidelines to eliminate gaps and maximize the results for your investment.

1. Establish a baseline for your research:

Verify the identity of the applicant. Always start with a social security trace report. Court records (criminal and otherwise) are mostly matched by name and date-of-birth, and/or social security number when available from the court. It is critical to making sure that these identifiers are correct and belong to the applicant so that you can eliminate the possibility of receiving records that do not match your applicant (also known as "false positives").

Focus your search using an Address History Report. Statistically, the majority of crimes are committed within the county of an offender's residency (past or present). Knowing where the applicant has maintained residency, even for brief periods of times allows you to commit resources in a cost-effective manner that will produce the best results.

2. What to search:

Start with County Court Records. Based on information provided by the Social Security Trace and Address History reports, conduct a real-time county records search. This involves an actual visit to the court or remote access to the court's real-time information repository by your background screening company. The information will be accurate as of the day the search is conducted. The minimum search based on residency should go back at least seven years.

Expand the geographic scope of your investigation. Although we have already established that the majority of crimes are committed within the county of an offender's residency, there is a percentage of crimes committed by "serial criminals". These are individuals who are methodical and plan their crimes in advance and many will cross county or even state lines to commit their crimes. These individuals may live normal lives by day and travel to commit their crimes to avoid detection. Case in point: We’ve all seen the television “sting” operations on MSNBC. Together with police, they pose as children on internet chat rooms and plan a meeting with the perpetrator to come to the child's house, where the police are waiting to arrest them. They are almost always coming from neighboring counties or even a neighboring State!

a) Statewide Searches. Depending on the State, these searches pull information from the State repository or Administrative Office of Courts and may include statewide records for all County or Circuit Courts, State Police, incarcerations records, or other State agencies. These are not available in all States, so Check with your background screening company to determine what searches are available.

b) Instant Database Searches. These searches are usually inexpensive, instant and contain electronic information from U.S. territories and state courts, lower and superior courts, state incarceration records, and sex offender registries. Additionally, Federal resources such FBI, DEA, OFAC, Medicare Fraud, etc. and information from other such sources and agencies are usually included.

On the other hand, database searches are also not 100% accurate because, as opposed to the county court search, each individual court/agency that contributes information will decide what is included, how far back the records go, and the information is updated in intervals on either a monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual basis (determined by the individual court). Furthermore, approximately 6% of the courts in the U.S. do not report electronically. Also, because of inaccuracies, the results from this type of report are required to be validated by your background screening company prior to being released to you.

However, since it is not cost effective to conduct a county search in every surrounding county and in every surrounding state, it is accepted practice to supplement your research with a criminal database search.

c) Search the Federal Courts. Although the number of criminal cases in the Federal court system is much fewer, they are usually more severe. Additionally, since some Federal cases originate in state courts, you have an opportunity uncover state level records that may have been missed in the previous steps.

3. Verify Credentials - the "reality check":

According to The Society of Human Resource Professionals (SHRM), over 50% of resumes contain false information.

a) Verify Education. If the resume or application provides a college degree or professional certification, check it, even if it is not required for the position. If the applicant cannot be trusted to be truthful when it is not required, then the applicant cannot be trusted when it is required.

Important: Verify that the college or university is actually accredited. There are many well run diploma mills that produce fake degrees without any coursework, but they will also back up their phony degrees and provide verifications and even transcripts!

b) Check with past employers. Contacting past employers allow you gain insight into and verify work experience, such as past projects the applicant claims, as well as the title, salary, and eligibility for rehire. While many employers will limit the information they provide, many are willing to discuss more.

c) Conduct a professional license check. For positions that require a professional license, verify held license status, expiration date, and other information. Also, be ready to check in previous States the applicant has lived. In many cases, individuals who have been barred from working in their profession may jump from State-to-State avoid being caught.

d) Check references. Although applicants will most likely provide names of people that they know will provide a good reference, a smart researcher will ask each reference for the names of at least three "other" people who know the applicant. Usually, these others are not always "preferred" by the applicant and may provide a better insight into the applicant. Additionally, just like the diploma mills, there are services now that provide people with fake references. This step will help to expose them.

In conclusion, when conducting a criminal background check there are no "100% guarantees" that every record will always be found. However, by following these steps you can conduct a thorough background check in a cost-effective manner that will significantly reduce the risk involved in the hiring process.

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Neil Adelman

Written by Neil Adelman

Neil is the founder and President of SafeGuard Background Screening. Neil is an accomplished entrepreneur with over 30 years of proven success building startups, growth business lines, streamlined business operations, and customer-focused solutions.