The Freedom of Information Act and Background Checks

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that allows for the disclosure of information held by public authorities. The Freedom of Information Act achieves this by requiring public officials to publish information regarding each activity they undertake as well as allowing citizens to request certain information from public authorities.

FOIA has been in place ever since the late 60s and is often described as the law that informs citizens of their government’s activities. Citizens have the right to request access to federal agency records under the FOIA unless it falls under one of the nine exemptions.

The Nine Exemptions

Agencies are allowed to refrain from releasing data as a response to an FOIA request because its release would be harmful to a governmental or private interests. Here are the nine exemption categories:

  1. Classified information that is meant for national defense or foreign policy
  2. Internal personnel rules, directives and practices related to an agency
  3. Information that is under the explicit protection of other laws
  4. Trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained outside the government
  5. Personnel and medical files or other files that would constitute a clear invasion of privacy
  6. Inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters that are protected by legal privileges
  7. Law enforcement records or information
  8. Information that deals with cases of bank supervision
  9. Geological and geophysical information

Although, regardless of these exemptions, agencies should still have a look if there is any possibility to have the requested information partially disclosed in the event that full disclosure cannot be granted.

FOIA for Background Checks

Through the Freedom of Information Act, any person aside from federal agencies, fugitives and foreign intelligence agencies can request FBI records regarding organizations, investigations, businesses, historical events, incidents, groups or deceased persons.

When requesting for the FBI records of another living person, the information will not be given unless you have the person’s written consent or its disclosure is allowed by law.

On the other hand, if you are requesting information regarding a deceased person, you must provide a proof of their death. Proof of their death can come in the form of death certificates, obituaries and written media.

An FBI Identification Record or more commonly known as a rap sheet is a great tool for background checks. It keeps a record of certain information taken from fingerprint submissions whenever an arrest takes place. Information can be taken from other instances such as naturalization, federal employment and military service.

FBI Identification records include data including which agency submitted the fingerprints to the FBI, the date when the arrest was made, the corresponding charge and the disposition of the arrest. All the records that are within Identification Records are all acquired from agencies who have criminal justice responsibilities that have submitted fingerprints, disposition reports and other relevant data.

FOIA laws allow you to carry out a criminal background check using other sources. These sources are local governmental agencies (such as the county’s sheriff or Clerk of Court). Some searchers choose to shorten the inquiry process by avoiding the red tape associated with governmental bodies. They may refer to private websites  that offer a criminal history search, such as the following one. This kind of websites ask for a fee but it is usually quite low (a few dollars). By the way, carrying out an inquiry on a person’s background while relying solely on governmental offices will also require a fee, which in some cases can be higher than those of private sources. For example, some U.S. state offer an online criminal database that requires signing up and paying per person searched, for example Texas Criminal History Name Search.

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