What’s a Federal Background Check?

What's a Federal Background Check?

Federal background checks should not be confused with national background checks. Federal checks are for crimes that are prosecuted at a federal level, which include infractions such as tax evasion, bank robbery, kidnapping, and counterfeiting. A national background check, on the other hand, is a check that includes records from all states, counties, and tribal territories.

Where are Federal Criminal Records Stored?

Federal crimes are prosecuted in United States district courts, which are trial courts. Federal crimes may be appealed in the United States courts of appeals (or appellate courts). So federal criminal records may come from either district courts or appellate courts though records will only come from appellate courts if the case was appealed.

Federal crimes are fairly uncommon, but if employers want to check federal records, they can do so using PACER. PACER is a portal that allows anyone from the general public to obtain electronic federal criminal records instantly. Most case information can be found on PACER, but some information (like personal identities, SSN, financial information, etc.) is removed, and criminal case documents prior to Nov. 2004 are not available.

What Federal Criminal Records a Potential Employer Can Collect

Generally, employers will be able to collect any and all federal criminal records (including bankruptcies filed in United States bankruptcy courts) instantly through PACER. Federal criminal records include all case documents, including a docket sheet.

Keep in mind that federal criminal background checks are only for federally prosecuted crimes--it is not a national background check. In the US, there is no truly holistic background check available to the public. The FBI maintains a database of felonies and misdemeanors called the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), but only law enforcement officials have access to this database, though you can request your personal records from the FBI.

Since employers don't have access to a national background check, most will use a multi-state check, often called a national background check.

Multi-state background check

For a comprehensive and thorough look into someone's criminal background, some employers will run a multi-state background check in addition to a federal check.

Multi-state background checks include records from each of the 46 states that have online databases. There can be information gaps in this type of check, however, because each state has its own standards of thoroughness. The four states without digital records (Delaware, Massachusetts, South Dakota, and Wyoming) require someone to check the criminal records in person, but sex offense records are online for all states.

If employers are concerned that they may be missing something, they can also run county-level checks for each county an employee ever lived in. These records are more time intensive to collect since they require running multiple checks and someone physically going to the courthouse to obtain them

So, Do Federal Criminal Background Checks Exist?

It is important to remember that a federal background check is not the same thing as a national background check; a federal background checks will review records for federally prosecuted crimes. All employers can easily obtain federal criminal and appeal records by accessing PACER as all federal criminal and bankruptcy records are public information.

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