Branded For Life!
How ‘Crimes of Poverty’ and Slimy, For-Profit Background Checkers Could Damage One out of Three Americans
Think about it: one in three Americans have some sort of criminal record, according to congressional testimony by a US Justice Department official. These records could be for a minor offense that didn’t lead to jail time or even a conviction, a case of mistaken identity in which charges are dropped, a youthful indiscretion or what are infamously known as “crimes of poverty:” traffic violations, suspended licenses, no car insurance or failure to appear in court.
In the post right below this one, titled “Nickeled and Dimed in Saint Loo,” I told the story of excessive law enforcement in St. Louis’s North County. There, a host of municipalities are so strapped for cash that they guzzle their own citizens with fines and fees for outrageously minor offenses. It might be happening in your town.
The consequences of this over-zealousness by local authorities go far beyond frayed police-community relations, or perpetuating the downward spiral of poverty. These violations become a matter of public record that could linger for a lifetime. And now, because of the internet, these records can now be easily viewed by employers, banks, college admissions officers, landlords and host of others. The repercussions can be devastating.
Your Darkest Moment Is a Click Away
According to the Wall Street Journal, the FBI estimates that it currently has 77.7 million records of individuals in its “master criminal database”–yes, that’s about one out of three American adults. And while an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 names are added every day, only half of these FBI records have fully up-to-date information. “There is a myth,” remarked Paul Butler, professor of law at Georgetown, “that if you’re arrested and cleared, it will have no impact.”
Remember, all law enforcement activity is a matter of public record. Before the internet, employers, landlords or creditors could trudge down to city hall or the local courts building to access accounts of misdeeds. Given the willingness of strapped law enforcement agencies to sell their public records (they are, after all, “public”), a growing number of web-based companies began purchasing records data and selling them online to anyone willing to pay the fee. You’ve probably seen ads like the one above and below over-populating online content.
These websites, with names such as Intelius (allegedly the largest), BeenVerified, GovRegistry, USSearch, PeopleFinders, PeopleLookup, and PrivateEye, join traditional search engines such as e-verify, Lexis/Nexis and court portals to generate an explosion of personal information that has stretched the bounds of privacy. They’re even ranked by Consumer Reviews.
“It’s the Wild West for background screening report companies,” said Persis Yu, lead writer of a report vetting these websites for the National Consumer Law Center. “They’re generating billions in revenue, but they have little or no accountability.”
The report cited several instances where “sloppy handling of data” led to cases of mistaken identity in which “rap sheets” were pinned to entirely innocent persons. Other flaws unveiled: “…displaying criminal records that were supposed to be sealed or wiped clean, misclassifying minor offenses as major crimes and listing charges that have been dismissed.”
Job Protections Not Always Obeyed
More than two-thirds of employers run criminal background checks on potential hires, according to a survey by a professional trade group. Recent and pending court decisions have compelled government regulators to write guidelines that would prohibit employers from making discriminatory judgments based on these checks. That is, according to Forbes magazine, “employers can’t turn away future employees simply because of a long-ago conviction for mortgage fraud, for instance, if they are hoping to work in an auto warehouse, or a drug charge if they are applying to be a store cashier.”
And yet, as they say, the devil is in the details. Employers to this day practice discrimination based on their exclusion of anybody who has a criminal record, regardless of circumstances. Jurisprudence will probably have the final say on the matter, as more and more people seek their day in court.
The “growing obsession with background checking and the commercial exploitation of arrest and conviction records makes it all but impossible for someone with a criminal record to leave the past behind,” concludes a recent report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Second Chances Hard to Come By
Okay, so you were busted for a small amount of weed down the Jersey shore during that magical summer after college graduation. The judge was sympathetic; she didn’t want the stain of drugs on your records. So you pled down to a misdemeanor, “obstructing a highway,” and paid a small fine. You walked out of that courtroom bursting with youthful optimism, your whole life gleaming with endless possibilities.
Not so fast, buddy boy. Your one and only brush with the law was no doubt chronicled in some police and court database, and then purchased by not one, not two, but probably over a dozen of public records paysites, as background checkers are sometimes called. Oh, yeah, you can possibly wipe the slate clean. But it’ll cost you unreasonable amounts of your time and money.
A paysite is required to offer the option of being removed from the list. But first, you will have to compile a list of these sites (to repeat, there are a dozen or more, and the list is probably growing as we speak) and then pay a fee at each site to determine if you’re listed.
Then comes the hard part: “…there’s no one place that’ll remove everything for you. Each site has different contact information and different procedures for removal. Some require you to fill out a form [on the internet], others require you to call, and some even ask you to fax your driver’s license to confirm your identity.” On many paysites, all that is required is your name, date of birth and the phrase “opt out.” And yes, you’ll probably pay another fee.
A Personal Nightmare
Here’s a cautionary tale about how hard it is to erase the stigma of inaccurate criminal records. In October 2012 in San Antonio, TX, a one Jose Gabriel Hernandez was having dinner at his home when police came to arrest him for sexually assaulting two young girls. It turned out authorities had the wrong Jose Hernandez. Prosecutors in the case admitted the mistaken identity and dropped all charges. Case closed?
Once the case was dismissed, Mr. Hernandez assumed authorities would set the record straight. Instead, he learned that the burden was on him to clear his record and that he would need a lawyer to seek a formal expungement.
“Needless to say, that hasn’t happened yet,” says Mr. Hernandez, who works as a contractor. Mr. Hernandez was held in the Bexar County jail on $150,000 bond. He didn’t have the cash, so his wife borrowed the money to pay a bail bondsman the nonrefundable sum of $22,500, or the 15 percent fee, that he needed to put up. They are still repaying the loan.” [emphasis mine.]
Now that’s a real crime.