Fingerprint scans and background checks are a relatively new technology in the grand scale of history. And nowadays, many people consider it the best way for the local, state, and federal governments to collect information on citizens and conduct background checks.
Unfortunately, there are also many misconceptions about fingerprint background checks’ capabilities. For example, some people don’t know there are limitations on what they check for and how far back they can go.
Meanwhile, others underestimate the power of fingerprint background checks and believe they’re not as potent as a full name check.
But it’s not so black and white. Background checks are nuanced with many different types, legal requirements, limitations, and lifetimes. So how long exactly does a fingerprint background check last?
That’s what we’ll discuss today, so stick around for more valuable legal information to clear up the confusion around fingerprint background checks!
The Short Answer
In most states, fingerprint background checks can only reveal your criminal record for up to seven years. But there are some exceptions, like Maine and Washington, which will display your history up to ten years ago.
These state limitations prevent employers from seeing records that are too old, thus giving you a chance at fair employment. However, they don’t mean that the records are deleted from the FBI’s database, also known as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).
So while your potential employer won’t have access to these old records, they still exist, and the federal government can see them.
Moreover, since the seven- or ten-year limitations apply at a state level, they only apply to employers within that state. So if you’re applying for a federal position, this limitation is irrelevant.
What Is a Fingerprint Background Check?
A fingerprint background check is a way for interested parties such as law enforcement or potential employers to retrieve a person’s criminal history using their fingerprint, just like they could using the person’s full name and date of birth.
Fingerprint background checks are typically processed through a unique FBI system explicitly designed for this purpose: the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS.
The IAFIS is a vast system, with criminal records on more than 56.8 million people in the USA, or about 17% of the American population.
And although we refer to these logs as criminal records, the name can be misleading since most people in the database are registered without criminal records, such as federal employees, police officers, and military workers, who get fingerprinted as part of the hiring process.
How Old Are Fingerprint Background Checks?
The current scanning method for fingerprints and the IAFIS are relatively new technologies. However, fingerprint background checks are probably older than you think.
The FBI’s first technical laboratory was actually opened in 1924 – nearly a hundred years ago! At the time, fingerprint tracking was a very modern discovery, and the lab almost entirely focused on the matter.
Of course, their methods were different at the time. There were no fingerprint scanners, and the process wouldn’t be digitized until about 75 years later with the advent of the IAFIS.
Instead, a person of interest would have to soak their finger in ink and press it against a paper, and the FBI’s technical lab would take it from there.
Why Are Fingerprint Background Checks Preferred?
If fingerprint background checks serve the same purpose as if you looked up someone with their full name, why do we have them in the first place?
Simply put, a fingerprint is a unique identifier and can’t be falsified, unlike personal info such as a full name, date of birth, and address, so it saves everyone a lot of hassle.
Many people with extensive criminal pasts lie about their information on employment forms to get past the infamous background check. And although this rarely works, it’s a hassle for employers to go through.
And in some cases, background checks can return mixed information if the person of interest has a common name or if their info matches someone else’s. And although this is rare, it’s also not something an employer or candidate wants to deal with.
What Info Does a Fingerprint Background Check Show?
A fingerprint background check reveals two important aspects about you: your personal info and criminal background or rap sheet.
Some info that these checks reveal include your full name, address, date of birth, place of birth, sex, social security number, and appearance traits like race, eye color, and hair color.
And then there’s your criminal history, such as previous arrests with their dates, charges, and criminal outcomes, such as if you were found guilty or not of a particular charge.
A fingerprint background check can also reveal police reports that relate to you, such as motor vehicle accidents and witness statements.
How Far Back Do Fingerprint Background Records Go?
As usual with legal matters, the answer isn’t straightforward because different bodies of authority and acts have conflicting limitations.
For example, most states have laws restricting how far back any type of background check can go. This is also known as the statute of limitations, and it primarily aims at giving people a second chance after enough time has passed.
In many states, the statute of limitations is seven years. And if you’re applying for work in that state, then the employer naturally has to comply with state laws. So if a potential employer wants to conduct a fingerprint background check on you, they shouldn’t get any information older than seven years.
However, this limitation affects what a potential employer is allowed to see. In other words, the FBI can see all your records regardless of how long ago it’s been. Still, they’re only legally allowed to reveal records up to seven years old (or however long the particular state’s limitations determine).
Besides, these state limitations obviously only apply at a state level. So if you’re applying for a federal position, they won’t consider your state laws and restrictions since they work at a national level.
In any case, if an employer somehow gets information about a candidate’s criminal past that’s older than their state’s statute of limitations, they shouldn’t factor it into their hiring decision.
States With Additional Limitations
The limit on how far back a potential employer can see your criminal history is often a fixed number of years. In states like California, Massachusetts, Montana, and New Mexico, this number is seven years, and that’s the end. In other states like Maine and Washington, your employers can see up to ten years back.
But in some states, there are additional factors that change this number.
For instance, in Hawaii, the limit is seven years on felony convictions but only five years on misdemeanors.
In many states, potential employers can only see your criminal history within seven years unless the position’s annual salary is higher than a specific threshold. In Kansas, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Washington, this threshold is just $20,000 per year. But in New York and Texas, this threshold is $75,000 per year or more.
Do Fingerprint Background Checks Reveal Expunged Records?
Sometimes, court cases may allow certain criminal records to be expunged (or erased) from public records. For example, people with a criminal history often ask the courts to delete their records to get a fresh and fair shot at employment.
If the court reviews your request and determines that you deserve a clean record, they’ll issue an order to expunge your records, effectively giving you a clean slate.
But while expunged convictions disappear from public records, they can still be accessed via a court order.
However, courts will typically refuse to let employers see expunged records. After all, these records were expunged to prevent potential employers from accessing them. But if the employer has a good reason, the court will likely allow them to see them.
Common Fingerprint Background Check Myths
As we’ve mentioned, the FBI has been using fingerprints to keep records and conduct background checks for nearly a hundred years. And the process has been digitized since 1999.
Yet there are a lot of misconceptions about fingerprint scanning and background checks. So we’ve combined a quick list of common myths and misconceptions and debunked them for you.
They Only Show Criminal History
Perhaps this myth stems from the natural association between background checks and criminal history. But in reality, fingerprint background checks reveal any legal incidents in which your fingerprints were taken.
This includes your criminal history, of course. Since the police take your fingerprints while processing you after an arrest, your past convictions and outcomes will also naturally appear on these checks.
But fingerprints can also reveal civil records since other organizations apart from potential employers may also use fingerprint background checks.
DMVs, for example, can use them to see your traffic history and determine if you’re eligible for licensing. And vehicle insurers can view your motor vehicle accident history before they set your premiums.
Identical Twins Have Similar Fingerprints
This is a common myth and a cause of concern for people whose identical twin has an extensive criminal past. But while identical twins have the same DNA, their fingerprints are different.
They Take Too Long to Return
We don’t live in the 20th century anymore where it could take months for the government to take your ink-stamped fingerprints and manually look up your records in a technical crime laboratory. Nowadays, fingerprint background checks typically take 1-3 days to complete.
The Bottom Line
Fingerprint scans are often considered the gold standard of criminal background checks. Since fingerprints are unique, people can’t lie on their applications by providing fake information, a common tactic among people trying to hide their criminal past.
Fortunately, states have limitations on how far back employers can view your criminal record through any background checks, including fingerprint background checks. This ensures people with a criminal history aren’t forever shunned from society and forced to work menial jobs.
Most states won’t give your employers records older than seven years, but there are exceptions with five or ten years.
If you have a criminal history and are trying to find work, we understand this sounds like too much time, but there’s no way around it, and you shouldn’t try to hide your criminal record while applying. So check your state’s limitations and wait it out.