You’ve gotten your potential tenant’s background check and stop mid-way to look it over. As you quickly glance at the clock in the corner of your desktop, you figure you can push lunch-time back just a few more minutes to get this taken care of. You absentmindedly gulp down your lukewarm coffee as your eyes skim the remainder of the report, mentally weighing whether to approve or deny this applicant. But as you see the criminal hits, you immediately question this applicant. If this has happened to you, you’re not the only one.

While criminal records may seem pretty straight-forward, there are a lot of common myths. From questions about “how far back can I check?”, “does this cover every jurisdiction?” to “should I automatically deny someone with a felony?” test your knowledge.  Here are some common myths about criminal records.

MYTH: My screening company has every crime in the country

Fact: There is no all-inclusive criminal repository  covering every city, county, state and federal agency in the U.S.  Not even the FBI has this.

Each screening company and/or its furnishers develop their own way of acquiring these records, and filtering them for quality.  This is especially important because it means each screening company also controls the age of records they report as well as the severity of the crime.  Best practices require a database to only report records within a legal time frame allowed by each state, and the type of crimes should be filtered to remain applicable to the reason for their use –  tenant or employment screening.

MYTH: All criminal reports are the same.

Fact: Not all criminal checks are created equal.  Here are some of the more common ones:

  1. Nationwide criminal database scan – typically an instant response that casts a wide net over the U.S. of available jurisdictions which allow access to their data.
  2. County-level criminal search¹ – a manual search by a researcher at the courthouse level. This may take one or several days for the results.
  3. Federal criminal search¹ – a manual search of the U.S. district and appellate courts.
  4. Sex offender registry – each state’s Dept. of Justice maintains their SOR. States vary as to how much data they report to the public (some states have redacted the date of birth/age and masked level 1 non-violent offenders).
¹ Recommended for employment screening.

MYTH:  All Criminal records have the same type of data

Fact:  Each jurisdiction controls what data fields are stored and how much if any they will provide to the public and to bulk furnishers (screening companies).  For instance an arrest record will not contain the disposition of a case that may be provided by the court if it went to prosecution.  In summary the type of records returned may vary by jurisdiction which come from police and sheriff agencies (arrests), wants and warrants, convictions and appeals from the court (county, state, federal, military),  jails and prisons, alert lists from various government and non-profit agencies, states’ Dept. of Justice and more.

MYTH: All felonies are serious crimes, and should heavily affect your decision.

FACT: What constitutes a felony versus a misdemeanor or infraction will vary heavily by state, and has many levels of severity depending on the type of crime. For example, it’s a felony to possess an eagle’s feather if you are not a member of a federally recognized Native American tribe, but this type of felony typically has a different level of severity than a felony related to assault or fraud. Another example would be marijuana provisions. While some states allow it, viewing it as perfectly legal, another might prosecute it as a felony, showing that not all felonies can be judged by bright-line standards.

MYTH: “It’s a traffic ticket, not a criminal offense!”

FACT: Although it might seem that traffic tickets are insignificant, considering how common it is to receive a ticket, the law is the law. If a law was not broken, a citation [infraction] wouldn’t have been issued in the first place. While you can request your screening company to filter out traffic offences from a rental or employment report, a traffic citation is still a criminal offense and many counties’ databases include them with misdemeanors and felonies.

MYTH: A criminal conviction can be used against an applicant forever.

FACT: While the FCRA does not have a limitation on criminal convictions, a growing number of states do. Typically criminal convictions are reported for 7 years, starting from the date of conviction. However, certain types of crimes (like actively registered sex offenders) are included beyond 7 years.  There has been a momentum of consumer protection groups and plaintiff attorneys seeking damages for denying a renter who has “served their time and made remediation”.  This issue is being watched carefully.

Myth: “I can’t use criminal records because there is too much liability.”

Fact: While some states might be attempting to restrict the use of criminal records in the rental decision, you can (and should) use them in your decision process if legally permitted (mobile home parks have restrictions).  So long as the records you receive are verified that they are about your applicant and are within the legal reporting period, it is your duty as a manager to keep your properties safe.  Your screening company should be using a quality matching methodology.  Fuzzy matching, that is only by applicant name, will lead to the risk of false positives, liability and the chance of denying applicants who could have been approved.

It’s highly recommended that you have a written criteria which specifies the type of crimes that will trigger a denial.  HUD has a helpful resource describing acts of crimes against persons and property, drug related, etc. that can be used in your criteria.

MYTH: A Social Security Number is required.

FACT: To comply with best industry practices, you should provide your screening company with at least 2 full matching identifiers. This includes first, last and middle name and date of birth. Social security numbers are not recorded by the arresting jurisdiction or court (sometimes it is by the prison system).  Your screening company may request the SSN for a secondary use to look up alias names.  This prevents missed records due to typos or applicant fraud.

If you’re still facing questions mid-report, ask your background screening provider about how they compile their criminal records. Learning their particular process can not only help ease your mind, but prepare you for future questions from your applicant. For additional information, visit cicreports.com.

About the Authors

Author Caryn BennettCaryn Bennett has been working in the Multifamily Housing Industry since 1990 with experience ranging from onsite property manager to the current position as Compliance Manager for CIC. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from University of the Pacific in Stockton, Ca. and has numerous FCRA and Experian course certifications. Caryn also serves as the chair of the tenant screening committees for the NCRA and NAPBS, and is a Notary Public of the State of California. When not working, she spends time with her husband, children and grandchildren. She enjoys reading and rock music.
Author Becky BowerBecky Bower is a communications intern here at the Resident Screening Blog. She holds a degree in English, with a focus in creative writing, from CSU Channel Islands. Her biggest weakness is cake and favorite superhero is Batman.

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