FBI No Longer Checks Its Records for ‘Nonserious’ Crimes

By Joe Palazzolo
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it has stopped vetting arrest records it receives from states to determine whether they are serious enough for inclusion in a massive database used to conduct background checks.

Federal regulations require the FBI to exclude from its rap-sheet database “nonserious” arrests and convictions of juveniles and adults, such as drunkenness, vagrancy, disturbing the peace and curfew violations. But states are not prohibited from sending such records to the FBI, and some have erred on the side of broad disclosure, given the lack of uniformity in state criminal laws.

Vetting the increasing number of records the FBI receives from the states for their seriousness has become “impractical,” said Jeremy M. Wiltz, a deputy assistant director in the FBI’s Information Services Branch, in a Sept. 21 letter to Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Patrick. Leahy, the ranking member.

The letter came in response to questions about the accuracy of the records the bureau maintains. It cites a Wall Street Journal story about private background screeners failing to remove expunged and sealed records from their databases.

The FBI database is primarily used for background checks on applicants for government licenses and jobs. It is unavailable to most private employers, which rely instead on private background check companies that collect records directly from state and local databases.

In 2014, the FBI conducted 30 million criminal background checks, Mr. Wiltz said. That figure does not include background checks for firearms sales. The FBI received more than 1.6 million fingerprint records per month so far in 2015, he said.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported the FBI currently has nearly 80 million individuals on file in its master criminal database—or nearly one out of every three American adults.

A federal court ordered the bureau to delete records of nonserious offenses from its database in 1976, but three decades later, the FBI proposed expanding its collection to include any criminal record submitted by the states. The bureau abandoned the proposal in the face of opposition from privacy and workers’ rights advocates, who said the expanded collection would stain juveniles for life and disproportionately impact communities of color.

It’s unclear how many records of nonserious offenses are included in the bureau database. The FBI has not conducted any audits or analysis related to their collection, Mr. Wiltz said. As a practical matter, the FBI collects records of arrests only when fingerprints were taken, so the database wouldn’t have any prohibited records from states that do not fingerprint suspects arrested for nonserious crimes, he said.

The FBI didn’t immediately respond to a call for comment on Monday.

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