Rebecca LaFlure is an associate director on Hillard Heintze’s investigations team, participating in complex investigations for a variety clients.  She also assisted a team of subject matter experts in conducting an independent review of the Denver Sheriff Department.

Prior to joining Hillard Heintze in August 2014, LaFlure worked as a news reporter and graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a master’s degree. LaFlure’s work has appeared in a variety of local and national news outlets, including The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Salon, NBC News, the Center for Public Integrity and Chicago Public Radio’s WBEZ.

One of the most common misconceptions I’ve come across as an investigations professional is the idea that I can quickly run someone’s name through a national criminal database and instantly see a person’s entire criminal history. I understand why people would have this impression, particularly with the number of companies advertising quick and cheap background checks online.

However, no complete national criminal database exists. The FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is the go-to resource for law enforcement agencies, but it’s not available to the general public. And even an NCIC check can sometimes be incomplete.

Instead, effectively researching a person’s criminal history involves an often time-intensive process of navigating various local, state and federal courts.

Focus on the Right Jurisdictions

In order to focus our research, my colleagues and I first determine where the subject in question has lived or worked to determine in which state-level courts we will conduct searches. How easy it is to conduct a criminal search varies greatly by jurisdiction. Some state courts offer online portals where members of the public can search a person’s name from the comfort of their own homes, but other courts require a person to actually go to the courthouse and conduct searches on site.

The number of courts we have to search in each jurisdiction also can vary widely. For example, in Cook County, Illinois, we can search all criminal cases at a single court: the Cook County Circuit Court. But in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, we would have to search 13 different criminal courts (the superior court and local district courts), which makes conducting a complete search in that county more time consuming and costly.

Certain states also offer state-wide repositories of criminal records that are available to the public.  However, individual courts still sometimes store information that may not be included in the so called “state-wide” databases.

Don’t Forget the Federal Courts

We also conduct separate searches of federal criminal records, which can include charges like bank robbery, child pornography and tax fraud.  These cases are filed in United States district courts, and are separate from the searches in various state courts.

Commercial Databases Help Fill the Gaps

In addition, we use commercial databases to help identify other criminal records that may have been filed in a jurisdiction outside of where a subject has lived or worked. These databases, which collect information from a variety of different sources, are the closest thing we have to conducting an “instant” national criminal search in the private sector.

These databases are not complete nor always accurate, but they can serve as a useful tool in identifying criminal records that would otherwise not be found. For example, perhaps a subject from Houston, Texas took a vacation to Miami, Florida and was arrested and convicted of a crime. We would not have found this case during our local court searches in Harris County, Texas, but we likely still would have found it by searching commercial databases.

Sound complicated? It can be. But my colleagues and I pride ourselves on learning the nuances of the more than 3,100 county-level jurisdictions around the country. So the next time you see an ad for a quick criminal search that sounds too good to be true — chances are it is.

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