An FBI background check is a means through which individuals, employers, and government officials can access criminal records and arrest data on United States citizens and residents. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) keeps detailed files that document arrests, crimes, and suspicious behavior collected by almost every law enforcement entity, local or national. When someone conducts a background “check” they are essentially getting a copy of any files that have been collected for a particular individual. People often have to submit to background checks as a requirement of taking a government job, adopting a child, purchasing a firearm, or working in “sensitive” places like prisons or daycare centers.
Why They're Done
There are three main reasons FBI background checks are performed: as a condition of employment; as a means of proving character; and as a way of monitoring personal information. The person who is the subject of the FBI file must usually consent to having the information disclosed in all three scenarios, even if they never actually see the information themselves.
Employers often want to know if people they are about to hire have criminal records. This is particularly true of jobs with national and local governments, but is also often the case in jobs where people will be working with young children; teachers and childcare workers, for instance, almost always have to submit to background checks, sometimes periodically even after they’ve been working for some time. People who work with controlled substances, particularly pharmacists, usually also have to maintain “clean” criminal records in order to work, or at least disclose any criminal activity before being hired. Companies that staff prisons and hire people to work with convicts may also require a background check as a condition of employment.
Certain activities may also require a background check. Adopting children is one example; most agencies and biological parents want to be sure that babies and small children are being placed with parents who don’t have a history of crime or other problems following the law. U.S. citizens who wish to live abroad may also have to furnish FBI records to the governments of the countries where they wish to reside in order to prove their character. In some places purchasing handguns or other firearms is contingent on a person's criminal record, which means that gun shop owners often have to request checks on potential customers.
People sometimes also wish to order a background check on themselves, usually as a way of monitoring their own record. Some crimes, particularly those that are minor, may only appear on a person’s record for a set amount of time. Regularly reviewing the FBI’s files is also a good way for people to know what employers and others will see when a report is ordered, which can help them prepare explanations or defenses as necessary.
How They’re Used
Most of the time, people use the information in background checks as a way of both evaluating a person’s suitability for a certain position or activity as well as getting a sense of a person’s honesty and trustworthiness. Checks that turn up past criminal activity aren’t necessarily damning, though, and don’t always mean that someone won’t be hired or won’t get a certain opportunity. A lot of this depends on the nature of the infraction and how long ago it was, as well as the employer or reviewer’s policy. In most cases a background check is just one part of a much larger investigative and interviewing process.
What Records Contain
The FBI maintains the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which is a national database of criminal justice information. The database contains criminal history information, along with a listing of missing persons and wanted fugitives, and most background checks draw on information that is in this system.
If a subject undergoing a FBI background check has a criminal record, the date of the arrest and criminal charges are listed in the database. Felonies and serious misdemeanors, including sex offenses, property damage and theft, and drug and narcotics charges make up the bulk of the records. More minor offenses, such as moving violations and traffic tickets, aren’t usually included, and as such don’t typically show up on a FBI check.
How Files are Maintained
Files are usually linked by fingerprint, but can also sometimes be searched by name, known address, and Social Security number or permanent resident identification number. The NCIC maintains records from both federal and state-level law enforcement agencies, and most are stored digitally. This makes checking someone’s background relatively quick, but given the volume of requests processing can still sometimes take a few weeks.