Bad Checks

Sure you can ferret out the slimeballs in our midst? Guess again if you're relying on standard background searches in Texas

So let's say you're a Little League softball coach. You want only the best for your little girl, a.k.a. the star pitcher, and her friends, so you do some research on two guys who've volunteered to be the assistant coach. An online background check for the first guy, Daryl Knowles Jr., brings up deferred adjudication for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, while the same search on the other volunteer, Timothy C. Williford, comes up clean. The decision seems easy. You order a jersey for Williford and pat yourself on the back for your prudence.

Not so fast.

Fifteen years ago, a 19-year-old Daryl Knowles drove up to City Lights, the unofficial make-out spot of Greenville, Texas, and caught his girlfriend cheating on him with another guy. He shone his headlights inside the car, the paramour got out, and words were exchanged. But their conversation was cut short by the girlfriend, who was out past curfew. So she got home and concocted this tale of Knowles flashing a knife and maybe even hitting the other guy's car from behind, saying whatever she could to get her folks off her back for being late. They believed her, and next thing Knowles knew, he was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The charge didn't stand, namely because the district attorney got kicked off the case for being related to the other guy, who also happened to contradict the girl's story, but Knowles ended up with deferred adjudication and six months of probation on the lesser charge of reckless conduct, a class B misdemeanor.

Doug Boehm

Twelve years ago, a 20-year-old Timothy Williford was arrested for burglary in Gatesville, Texas. He had broken into a house, stolen a video camera and later used it to film adolescent girls through windows, according to an affidavit prepared by the Texas Rangers. Several videotapes were recovered, and Williford told the cops he couldn't control his voyeuristic urges and admitted he masturbated while watching the tapes. The court gave him deferred adjudication for the theft and put him on probation. Despite this history, he still shows up clean in official records.

By now you're probably thinking Williford wasn't the better choice for assistant coach after all. But how were you supposed to know? The online screening service you used was the Texas Department of Public Safety's criminal history conviction database, the repository of criminal records from all 254 Texas counties. You had limited access to the same data used by cops and prosecutors (to find and charge suspects) and by school districts and state agencies (to screen applicants for sketchiness). And that's the problem.

The Texas DPS database is full of mistakes and omissions. According to a compliance report the department released last year, only 71 percent of the criminal history records for 2004 are complete. For 2003, it's only 73 percent. Close to 200,000 records are missing from each of those years, and it's unlikely many older records will ever be put into the system.

On top of that, a recent report by the State Auditor's Office found many unauthorized users with access to the DPS's secure site. These users can see records they shouldn't be looking at, further muddying the integrity of the state's criminal histories.

"The database is corrupt and a piece of garbage," says Scott Henson, a political consultant in Austin. "The thing has just turned into its own animal."

So far this year, the public portion of the Texas DPS criminal history database has been searched a half-million times by coaches, employers and other folks looking for a little peace of mind. A basic search costs three bucks, plus a small processing fee, making it an inexpensive way to find out who's who.

But the DPS relies on individual counties to report arrests and dispositions, or outcomes, and this is the first step in a system wrought with misinformation. Counties have been required by law to hand over their crime records since 1993, yet the mandate was unfunded and many have been slow to rally.

A 2005 compliance report released by the department revealed that Grimes County, for example, had completed only 8 percent of its reporting for 2004. Out of the 646 charges the county submitted, the DPS has a record of only 49 dispositions, meaning the department has no idea what happened in the other 597 cases. For 2003, the numbers are a little better: Out of 712 charges, 107 dispositions have been reported, giving the county a score of 15 percent.

What does all this mean?

Basically, you could get arrested and convicted of a heinous crime in Grimes County and there's little chance someone searching the DPS database would ever find out about it. Public users are allowed to see records only in which the final outcome has been reported, so they wouldn't even know you'd ever been arrested.

Other Houston-area counties aren't doing so great either. For 2004, Liberty County's records are only 45 percent complete. And then it's 51 percent for Waller, 63 percent for Brazoria, 72 percent for Chambers, 76 percent for Galveston, 77 percent for Fort Bend and 81 percent for Montgomery. Harris tops the list at 104 percent, meaning it somehow reported more outcomes than arrests for 2004.

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