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County Background Checks: A Complete Guide

A guide to county background checks

Criminal background checks are an important part of making informed hiring decisions and building a safe workplace. State and federal criminal background checks may be required in some situations, but a county criminal background check provides you with the most detailed and comprehensive results.

In this article, we’ll explore what county criminal background checks are, why they’re important, and how you can use the results while remaining compliant with local, state, and federal laws.

What Is A County Background Check?

There are nearly 3,150 counties and county-equivalents in the US, and most criminal prosecutions happen in municipal or county courts. A county criminal background check searches for criminal charges and convictions at these county courthouses.

Most counties digitize their records and make them available online. Some only give researchers in-person digital access to their records, only have paper copies, or require a county clerk to assist in retrieving records. 

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What Shows Up On A County Criminal Background Check?

The results of a county criminal background check may reveal the following results:

  • Dispositions: Indicate the final outcome of a charge or current status of the case, such as whether the person was convicted or acquitted. 
  • Sentences: The legal consequence(s) associated with a conviction. 
  • Misdemeanor convictions: Less-serious offenses, such as vandalism or public intoxication. They may result in a fine, probation, community service, or 15 days to one year in a local jail. 
  • Felony convictions: More serious offenses, including murder, rape, and arson. The sentencing may vary depending on the class or level of the felony, but can include heavy fines, incarceration for over a year, and loss of civic privileges.
  • Pending criminal cases: Cases that are still being tried or under review.
  • Active warrants: Certain types of warrants may be included after they’re executed. 

County background checks don’t reveal federal criminal convictions prosecuted at the federal level. The results also won’t necessarily show dismissed charges or records that were sealed or expunged. It’s helpful to understand the terminology in criminal background checks and how to read the results accurately. Even if they’re available, GoodHire doesn’t include non-convictions in background check results to align with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines and help you comply with state laws.  

How far back does a county background check go?

A county criminal background check generally covers at least seven years of criminal records. A longer timeframe may be available where allowed by state law. Some states, such as California and New York, limit the lookback period of a background check to seven years.

How Long Does A County Background Check Take?

A county background check generally takes one to five business days. However, the specific turnaround time can depend on:

  • If you’re doing it yourself or using a consumer reporting agency (CRA)
  • If you’re searching for one name or including aliases
  • How many counties you’re searching
  • Which counties you’re searching
  • Where and how the counties keep their records (e.g., if they’re digitized or not)
  • Whether the results are clear or contain alerts 

Some courthouses have records available online, while others don’t allow off-premise access to records. In situations where a courthouse only has physical records, you or a court runner will need to visit the county courthouse to conduct the search. Some courthouses have a public access terminal that court runners can use, while others require the runner to ask a county clerk to retrieve the records and make copies. 

In response to privacy concerns, several counties across the US have begun removing personally identifiable information, including date of birth (DOB), from public court records. Additionally, criminal records rarely have a Social Security number (SSN) associated with them. Having fewer personal identifiers can make finding and correctly matching records more difficult, particularly in highly populated counties, which can impact the turnaround time. 

Your background check provider’s platform, process, and data sources can also affect the timing. CRAs must verify the accuracy of the results when conducting a background check, so unexpected closures at the courthouses or technological issues with the databases may lead to temporary delays. 

County vs State Background Check

County background checks only look for records in the county—or counties—you request. Casting a wider net with a state background check can reveal criminal charges and convictions that are included in state-level databases. 

County records are often fed into these state databases, which means you might find overlapping results. However, a county background check may turn up new records if the county isn’t connected to its state database. With this in mind, barring certain exceptions, the state background check should generally be an addition, rather than a replacement for, a county background check. Additionally, some industries may require a statewide criminal records search. 

How To Get A County Background Check

Employers can leverage third-party solutions and providers to perform county criminal background checks as a one-off search or part of a comprehensive pre-employment screening.

The criminal records check starts with a candidate’s name, date of birth, and Social Security number (SSN) trace, which reveals the candidate’s address history. These addresses help you identify which county records to search. Nationwide and state searches can also help you determine which counties to include.  

Employers using a CRA to conduct screening will need to make sure they’re complying with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). 

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How to get a county criminal background check on yourself

You can run a personal background check on yourself if you want to find out what records exist and what employers might see. With GoodHire, you can also add comments to your personal background check to give human resources teams additional context, and easily dispute any errors or inaccurate information you find. 

How To Maintain Compliance

Organizations need to be mindful of local, county, state, and federal laws and regulations that impact when you can run and how you can use criminal background checks for employment. At a high level, you’ll want to consider:

  • Consistency: Create and follow written background check policies that determine when and which background checks to use based on the position.
  • Timing: Understand which ban-the-box and fair chance laws apply and how they can impact your process. 
  • Disclosures: Comply with the FCRA by informing applicants about the background check with a clear and conspicuous disclosure and getting written consent before conducting a search. 
  • Adverse action: Know your responsibility for following the steps for sending adverse action notices if you decline an applicant for a job or promotion based on the results of a background check.
  • Disparate impact: Be certain that your policies and procedures don’t have an intentional or unintentional impact on protected applicants. Federal laws prohibit employment discrimination based a variety of identifies, including age, color, race, and sex. 

Working with an accredited consumer reporting agency that specializes in background checks and has built-in compliance features can help ensure you’re following the latest laws and regulations.

Get A County Background Check With GoodHire

A county background check can provide important details about a candidate’s criminal history that can be used to make a more informed hiring decision. County criminal background checks are among the hundreds of background screening options GoodHire offers employers and candidates, including federal background checks, national background checks, and state background checks. Our unparalleled access to databases and national network of professional court runners can help you quickly receive and review results—while also helping you stay compliant wherever you’re hiring. 

Get A County Background Check With GoodHire

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GoodHire's background check platform makes it easy to order reports and review results.

The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

About the Author

Louis DeNicola headshot

Louis DeNicola writes about GoodHire’s screening services to educate employers about background check regulations and best practices. He is also a freelance writer who works with Fortune 500 financial services firms, fintech startups, and online publishers.