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County, State & Federal Background Checks: What Employers Need to Know

June 21, 2022

Background checks are an essential part of the hiring process for employers. These checks verify the identity, education, employment history, criminal record, and other information of potential candidates. However, not all background checks are the same. Depending on the type and scope of the check, different sources of data can be used, and different results will be obtained.

One of the most important distinctions to understand is between county, state, and federal background checks. These are three different levels of jurisdiction that may have different records and databases for criminal and civil cases. Depending on the nature and location of the job, employers may need to order one or more of these checks to get a complete report of a candidate's background.

Today, we’ll discuss the main differences in these three types of checks.

County Background Checks

A county background check is a search of records maintained by a specific county court system. It typically covers criminal cases such as felonies and misdemeanors, as well as civil cases such as lawsuits, judgments, liens, and bankruptcies.  

A county background check tends to be the most accurate and up-to-date source of information for a specific geographic area. However, these checks only cover one county, so it may not capture records from other counties where a candidate may have lived or worked. Therefore, employers may need to order multiple county background checks to cover all the relevant locations in a candidate's history.  This is typically obtained through an address history of the candidate, and multiple counties can be run which encompass a specific time period.

State Background Checks

A state background check is a search of the records maintained by a specific state agency or repository. It typically covers criminal cases from all the counties within that state, as well as some civil cases such as restraining orders, sex offender registries and child abuse registries. A state background check may also include fingerprint-based searches that match a candidate's fingerprints with those stored in a state database.

A state background check is usually more convenient and cost-effective than ordering multiple county background checks. However, it may not be as accurate or comprehensive as a county background check, since some counties may not report all their records to the state repository or may have delays in updating their records. States vary widely on how accurate and complete their repositories are. Therefore, employers may need to verify the results of a state background check with the original county sources.

Federal Background Checks

A federal background check is a search of the records maintained by federal agencies or courts. It typically covers criminal cases that involve federal laws or crimes that cross state lines, such as terrorism, drug trafficking, fraud, immigration violations and civil rights violations. A federal background check may also include national security clearance checks that require a high level of scrutiny and verification.

A federal background check is typically required for jobs that involve working for or with the federal government, handling sensitive or classified information, or accessing federal facilities or systems. However, these checks do not cover state or local crimes that do not fall under federal jurisdiction. Therefore, employers may need to supplement a federal background check with county and/or state background checks to get a complete report of a candidate's background.

When creating your background screening program and determining which components to order for your background checks, it is always a good idea to work with an accredited screening company, who can help craft a plan for you to obtain the best possible information for your needs when running background checks.  Employers should understand the differences between county, state and federal background checks and order the appropriate ones for their hiring needs. By doing so, they can ensure that they are hiring qualified candidates who meet their required standards.

We are currently offering a free 30-minute screening program review with our compliance experts. Schedule today and we'll step through every aspect of your screening program and where you may be able to improve. There is no obligation or risk involved, and you'll receive a free report you can review with team members following the consultation.

Schedule your free review


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