Clients who have seen the online “Nationwide criminal background check, $69” come-ons sometimes ask why we won’t ever say that someone has no criminal record.

They also wonder why doing a proper criminal check in even a single state costs more than $69.

This is why:

  • Unless you are tapped into law-enforcement databases (which if you aren’t law enforcement, you shouldn’t be), you need to look for criminal records either by state or sometimes, by county. We once looked at a prominent chief executive and found a whole bunch of drunk driving convictions in his recent and not-so-recent past. They were in counties where he lived or worked, including one in the county where he went to college.

But we missed one. We found out when the executive was arrested for DUI and came clean on his history of drinking and driving. He listed the three convictions we knew about and another one that happened two counties away from where he went to college.

There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States, and many of them do not have their records online. Sending people to each county just isn’t practical for anyone with a budget.

We always say, therefore, “We searched counties A, B, and C and we found the following.” Anything more sweeping leaves you open to a surprise later. In the case of the CEO above, we had searched ten counties and charged the client $2,500 in retrieval fees, and that was a reasonable search.

  • New York state allows you to search for criminal records through the Office of Court Administration. It costs $98 (not $69). And that’s just for one state. Even then, sealed records are not reported, and as of 2007 violations and infractions (as opposed to felonies and misdemeanors) are not reported. Therefore, saying no criminal record when your person comes up with zero hits is not accurate.

We say, therefore, “A New York State Office of Court Administration searched turned up no criminal record,” and then we list the restrictions.

  • We may not have a permissible purpose to do a criminal search. The California Fair Chance Act prohibits employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until they have made an offer of employment. If the client hasn’t made an offer, we can’t do a criminal check. Employers aren’t even allowed to ask about or consider criminal matters that have been expunged. Other states also have variations of this so-called “Ban the Box” law.
  • Most of the rest of the world has even stricter rules on reporting past criminal and even civil court activity. Most court records in a lot of the European Union are sealed. We did a case this year with an executive who had spent time in France and Belgium. Our footnote to the criminal record portion read, “We searched French and Belgian records, but these only reveal cases of notable legal importance. Litigant names are often anonymized.”

I love helping clients find out more about the people and companies they are either in business or in litigation with, or thinking about being in business with or suing. Part of helping is to let them know not only new information, but what information is missing.

Life is full of risk. A good investigation can greatly reduce risk, but if you think there is a way to eliminate all risk from your life, think again. Someone who wants a guarantee that we will find “everything” about a subject is not the client for us.