This article will help you:
- Recognize what is included in the scope of a lookback period
- Determine why you might see a longer, or shorter, time period for certain records
One of the biggest challenges of interpreting a background check is understanding the so-called “lookback period” on the criminal history section of the report. In other words, the question you may ask is, “How far back are records searched during a background check, and why would or wouldn’t I see certain information?”
The answer to this question may vary due to the process used to search for records in multiple jurisdictions (such as county and federal jurisdictions), as well as the applicable legal requirements for that jurisdiction.
What’s included in the scope of a county criminal search?
Most of the United States’ 3,000+ counties make their records publicly accessible dating back at least seven years. Here “publicly accessible” means a digital Public Access Terminal (PAT), year-by-year index or court clerk assisted search.
The traditional scope of most county criminal court searches is to search for possible records that date back the last seven years. Not only is seven years the baseline lookback period for what is generally available at the courts, but this is also the industry standard for lookback periods. In addition, some states limit the reporting of criminal record information to seven years. (Note non-conviction information -- e.g., dismissals, arrests -- can be reported at most for seven years, and in some states, this information can’t be reported at all.) States that have a seven-year scope limitation include:
- New Mexico
- New York
What’s included in the scope of a federal criminal search?
Federal records are searched using the Federal Judiciary’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system. Records are typically available dating back indefinitely, though there are certain record reporting rules with respect to convictions vs. dismissed records, pending records, and records that were ultimately expunged, sealed, or eradicated. In addition, the seven-year reporting restrictions identified above may also apply depending on applicant location, job location, or employer location.
Why might a lookback period be longer or shorter?
Even in those states where there are not scope limitations, there may still be a lack of publicly available records dating back more than seven years. Every county is autonomous and maintains (and makes available) their records differently. It is common for most county criminal courts to provide only 7-10 years of record information.
For the states identified above that have existing consumer protection laws further limiting the scope of how far back records can be searched, the question of “what defines X years” can be challenging. For example, California is a seven-year scope-limit state. That said, "seven years" can be defined three different ways in California:
- Seven years from the date of disposition (conviction)
- Seven years from when the person was released from jail/prison
- Seven years from any violation of parole from the original criminal case
Depending on the availability of information, the seven-year counting period usually begins on the latest of these occurrences.
Can the scope of a search change based on industry?
Certain regulated industries, such as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), are required to enhance their search scope outside of the standard seven-year search. This extends to states that have a scope limitation. These searches are referred to as “indefinite lookback” searches, whereby records are searched using both publicly available methods, as well as requesting searches of indexed and/or archived public records of the court. Indefinite lookback searches vary from county to county with respect to what can be retrieved (for example, blind search vs. known record).
We recommend that you consult with counsel to review any and all existing policies, procedures and compliance requirements as it pertains to industry-specific lookback requirements of criminal record searches.