Bad Checks

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

ChoicePoint, an Atlanta-based data company, had reported his misdemeanor as a felony and told The Home Depot he'd served seven years in prison. ChoicePoint says it got the bad data from the Texas DPS; the department admits it had Schustereit's conviction misclassified, but "the seven-year prison stint was not of our doing," says Lesko. "It is not reflected anywhere in our records."

By the time Schustereit got ahold of his original disposition, The Home Depot had already found someone else for the job.

"I've got two honorable discharges and a service citation for serving my country," says Schustereit, "and they won't let me sell wire nuts to the public at Home Depot." He says he fell into a depression after the incident, further compounded by a thyroid problem that went untreated because of a lack of insurance. "It's just been very hard on me."

Doug Boehm

Over the past three years, the DPS reports more than a quarter-million dollars in revenue from the sale of criminal histories to third-party vendors such as ChoicePoint. The DPS knows these records are incomplete, but it passes them along anyway. These data are then mixed with records from other sources, often being grouped solely on the basis of a name rather than a fingerprint match, and third-party vendors sell the information to employers and landlords, promising a more thorough check than the competition.

Criminal histories bounce around the Internet in an almost viral fashion, making it especially hard to track down exactly where mistakes are introduced. There's also no guarantee a correction is going to follow the same path. When Schustereit contacted the DPS about getting his record corrected, he says he was told he'd have to contact hundreds of third-party vendors individually and send them a notarized copy of his disposition.

"If you had something on your Experian credit, you'd write and you'd challenge it," says Daryl Knowles, who went through the same rigmarole, "but with these criminal background companies there seems to be no recourse."

Thanks to the Texas DPS criminal history database, good people have been labeled bad and bad people have been labeled good, and neither of these options is good for anybody but the baddies. Part of the fault lies with county clerks and database end users, but as the official hub for the state's criminal history information, there's no way the DPS can duck all the blame.

In its official response to the 2006 report by the State Auditor's Office, the department said, "We have recognized that the ever increasing use of the criminal history data for licensing, employment, volunteerism, and other 'non-criminal justice' purposes naturally creates a corresponding responsibility for controls over those entities. Our limited resources have prevented an adequate response to this rising need."

Ten years ago the DPS wouldn't have been held to such high standards, but now that you can Google your rooftop in seconds, folks have come to expect accuracy when they hop online and look up criminal histories. They have faith a background check sponsored by a state agency will contain all the relevant info. They have faith the system works.

And it doesn't.

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