Monday, March 30, 2015

What is the purpose of fingerprint clearance?

     Yes, I am still trying to get my fingerprint fiasco resolved. I went down to the state public safety office on Friday and had one of their technicians do my prints to make sure they were done correctly (at their suggestion). But, in the midst of this something interesting has happened: I got in touch with our social worker to give her an update on the continued delay, and her response was "Well, if they come back unclear a third time, you just fill out a form that allows them to use a clean name-based background check as a substitute for a fingerprint scan." Here is why I find this interesting: if that is equivalent, why did I need a fingerprint scan in the first place? What is the purpose of fingerprinting if the name-based paperwork has already come back showing that I have no criminal record?
   That frustration combined with slightly suspicious questions from people who know what we are going through ("Is there a possibility that they keep needing to rerun your prints because something is showing up?") made me think that it might be a good idea to do some research for a post on the purpose of fingerprinting and what will cause you to be denied/fail a fingerprint scan.

What is the purpose of a fingerprint clearance?
    Throughout this process, I have learned that there are two ways to do a background check: using your name and using your fingerprints. In most cases, a name-based background check will give anyone the results they would need about you. But, with things such as adoption (or trying to get a government job, for example), a name alone does not provide a thorough enough result. Here are a few of the reasons why:
  • A name-based background check is done using information you provide. This can be faked. 
  • A name-based check is more prone to errors. Common names, aliases, or maiden names could return a false hit. 
    • I've actually seen this happen when a member of my family with a common first and last name got put on the no-fly list due to a name and description match.
  • It is not unusual for a criminal offenders to use false names or dates of birth, which would not show up using a “name based” search. For example, a criminal history record could exist under a previously used name, but the you use your original birth name on the application. When the birth name is run instead of the name that includes the conviction, the criminal history does not show up.  
  • Maybe you were never caught. There are many unsolved criminal cases with prints on file that were found at the scene, just waiting for a match to someday pop up in the system. 
  A fingerprint based background check avoids these problems. Since your fingerprints are unique and accurate, there are no false positive and no missed records. You could have given a fake ID and fake name when you got arrested, but you wouldn't have been able to fake your prints.

Can I fail a fingerprint clearance? 
   Yes. If you have a criminal record, there is a chance you could be denied a fingerprint clearance, depending on what type of crime. Anytime you have a conviction on your record or are in an ongoing trial, your fingerprint clearance is in jeopardy. Here are some of the crimes that will prevent you from passing your fingerprint clearance: 

  • any crime that results in you having to register as a sex offender
  • first or second degree murder
  • sexual assault or abuse
  • child abuse, molestation, or neglect
  • assault
  • theft
  • robbery
  • cruelty to animals
  • kidnapping
  • arson
  • welfare fraud
  • possession or use of any controlled substances 
   This is not an inclusive list, but it does give you an idea. As a general rule, any crime involving children (minors), anything sexual, or anything violent will be a big problem. Now, there is an appeals process. So, for example, if you are denied a fingerprint clearance due to a crime that falls under the category of "possession or use of any controlled substance" because you were caught with a recreational amount of marijuana when you were a freshman in college, you can work your way through a small mountain of paperwork arguing that this is not something that impacts your ability to parent or provide a safe home environment for a child today. There is no guarantee that an appeal will be successful, but it can be comforting to know that it is built in to the system so that a mistake from your past doesn't automatically doom your chances of adopting.
  If you are in a situation where you will need to file an appeal, each state goes about this differently. In my state, you have 30 days to submit your appeal paperwork, and it will be handled in one of two ways. Option one is that they will review your appeal, review your criminal record, and just grant you a clearance based on that information. Option two is that they will require a hearing where you will appear before a court and need to prove that you have made positive life changes since the time of your conviction.
   The other option is to appeal for your record to be cleared/expunged (if you are eligible for that in your state) before you ever turn in your application for fingerprint clearance. Everything I have seen recommends that the clearing of your record be completed at least one month before your prints will be run. Each state differs on the requirements that must be met in order to have a conviction removed from your record, including specifications about the type of crime, how long it has been since the crime was committed, and the manner in which your sentence (whatever that may have been) was completed.

   And, for anyone wondering, no! There is no chance that the problems with my fingerprinting are due to a criminal record. I'm a pretty boring person and have never committed a crime or been arrested on suspicion of committing a crime. My delay is simply an unfortunate frustration.


  1. May I ask what state your reside? My husband and I are getting ready to start our process, and sounds familiar. However, there are some details that make me question.

  2. Hi Tara! We live in Arizona. Where are you guys?