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Court rules in favor of criminal background check company

When Maryland residents face criminal charges that are later dismissed, these charges could still show up in a criminal background check. This was the case for a woman who faced a battery charge in Illinois. The court had dismissed her charge without a conviction after she served a short supervision sentence. However, a rental application the woman submitted 20 years later was rejected because of the charge. She filed a lawsuit against the background check company, alleging that it violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

According to the FCRA, background screening companies cannot report arrests after seven years. However, there is not a time limit on reporting convictions. The court ruled that "conviction" should be defined under federal instead of state law. Because the woman pleaded guilty, the court said the charge counted as a conviction despite its dismissal at the state level. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that a man in a similar situation, whose charges were diverted and expunged, was also considered to have been convicted under federal law.

In this case, the woman might have been eligible to have her record expunged although she never pursued the option. An expungement might still have fallen under the federal definition of a conviction, but it may also have given her further grounds under which to challenge the decision.

As this situation demonstrates, if a person is making a deal in a criminal case that involves a guilty plea, it is important to understand the implications of that decision. There may be not just legal repercussions but others as well related to housing, education and career. An attorney may be able to help the person understand the potential risks and benefits of this strategy. There might be situations in which the better approach is to go to trial.

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