Today we look at the mother of all criminal record databases: the National Criminal Information Center, or NCIC. This is a compilation of various criminal record files that are maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The files of greatest interest for background check purposes tend to be the list of wanted persons, and individuals who have been “charged with serious and/or significant offenses”.
The NCIC actually has seven categories of people in its database. In addition to the two mentioned above, it includes:
- Missing persons.
- People the Secret Service believes are a danger to the President or other protected individuals.
- Members of violent gangs. Note that you do not have to be arrested to make it into this category.
- Members of terrorist organizations. As with gangs, proof is optional.
- Unidentified persons. Includes the dead, as well as the living who don’t know or can’t express who they are.
The criminal record files are backed up by fingerprints and other identifiers.
It is clear from looking at this list that NCIC is designed to cover a lot more than criminal convictions. There are also few restrictions from placing someone in the database. Since NCIC is effectively limited to law enforcement use, this did not cause problems for employment screeners at first. But with the events of 9-11 there has been increased interest in using NCIC for employment screening. If you are a hazardous material truck driver, as of May 2005 you must pass an NCIC check. This and other security measures were passed as part of the Patriot Act. Some of us are also glad to see that nuclear power plants are considered worthy of this level of protection. And apparently, we work very closely with Canadian law enforcement.
So far, this is fairly specialized. But the most typical case in which NCIC ends up playing a role in employment screening is via state statute. As a result, it is increasingly used for jobs that involve dealing with children, the elderly, or the disabled.
There are certain issues with using the NCIC directly, rather than going through a background check company. NCIC simultaneously has too much and too little information. It will have records from people who were never convicted of a crime. It will also reveal the existence of criminal records that have been expunged. (Note that you have the right to request your own NCIC record in an effort to correct this, although the effectiveness is not completely clear — the record and its removal may still show up.) It may or may not have all the records that are available through a local search.
For now, NCIC is not available to the majority of employers. Commercial criminal background checks offer a product that that is tailored for business users.