One of the most common questions that people ask when they are faced with applying for a new job is whether or not their criminal past will come back to haunt them. More specifically, do sealed records keep FBI fingerprint records from showing up in a background search.
The question comes from the fact that there are an average of over 2 million juveniles arrested each year (1)(2). Once many of these juvenile offenders grow up and mature into law-abiding adults, they find that the criminal history they accumulated during those younger years hang around to haunt them.
The worst case is being arrested for a crime that requires fingerprinting. This enters the criminal history and fingerprints into the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), the national system that stores all criminal fingerprints and “rap sheets” for all arrested individuals in the country. At a moment’s notice, an FBI agent or police officer can request those records.
The real question is how long the records remain in IAFIS, and whether a court order sealing the criminal records will keep the FBI fingerprint records from showing up in subsequent law enforcement or employment background check requests. (3)
The answer is one that you may not want to hear if you happen to have such a criminal record. The records are nearly impossible to have removed from the system, and sometimes even when a court orders a criminal record to be expunged or “sealed”, the electronic version of the record never goes away.
Your FBI Fingerprint Records
When a court seals a criminal record, as it often does in some states in the case of many juvenile criminal records, the record is no longer available to the public.
The key phrase is “to the public.” Police agencies and federal investigators will still have access to your arrest records and your fingerprint records. The sealed records only mean that the criminal history will not show up on a background check conducted by a private company. (5) However, it will show up on a background check conducted by a government agency or if you plan to obtain employment in law enforcement. (4)
This is where the line blurs regarding whether sealed records keep FBI fingerprint records from showing up. The answer is that in some cases the sealed records will block them from being discovered, but not in all cases.
In fact, according to a NY Times article in 2006, just because your criminal records have been expunged or sealed does not mean they are gone forever. (6) In some recorded cases, the records never actually disappeared from the public databases at all.
“Private database companies say they are diligent in updating their records to reflect the later expungement of criminal records. But lawyers, judges and experts in criminal justice say it is common for people to lose jobs and housing over information in databases that courts have ordered expunged.”
According to the article, some lawyers even tell their clients that expungement is a waste of time, and that “In an electronic age, people should understand that once they have been convicted or arrested that will never go away.”
Check Your Own FBI Fingerprint Records
The best option if you know that you had a criminal record and want to be sure that a court order to expunge or seal the records has worked, you can perform a background check on yourself just to see what turns up.
This will show you what exists in the public records database so that you can enter into an employment or housing application knowing what you’re facing. This allows you to be completely forthright with what will turn up on the background check, and you can provide your explanation first, rather than letting it turn up as a surprise.
Additionally, you can also verify your own FBI “rap sheet” for a very small fee by just visiting the General Information section of the FBI website and requesting a copy of your own FBI Identification Record (FBI fingerprint records) for review.
For a small fee, you are allowed to obtain your own records to verify its accuracy. Also, once you know what records exist for you, you won’t have to wonder whether or not a court order to seal your records has worked. By conducting a background check and an FBI fingerprint request yourself, you’ll know the answer.
References & Image Credits:
(1) U.S. Dept of Justice 2006 statistics
(2) U.S. Dept of Justice 2008 statistics
(3) FBI IAFIS System
(4) FBI Criminal Background Check
(5) Colorado Criminal Records
(6) NY Times