Guide to California Background Checks

Danielle Hubein
February 15, 2023
11 min read

California employers use background checks to learn more about job candidates before they hire. But navigating federal, state, and local laws can complicate matters when you’re conducting background checks in California. Here’s what employers need to know about how to do a background check in California: what they are, how they work, and how laws may affect your search.

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What is a California background check?

Employment background checks help California employers make informed hiring decisions while maintaining a fair hiring process. Background screenings can help assess a candidate’s qualifications and experience, reveal criminal convictions, check credit history, and more. In some cases, background checks may be required to comply with federal, state, or local regulations.

Employers commonly screen job candidates before bringing them into the workplace, but background checks can also be useful for prospective volunteers or contractors, especially when they’re likely to operate a vehicle, interact with customers, or care for vulnerable populations like children or dependent adults.

Here are some examples of commonly run background checks in California:

Criminal background checks search criminal court records for felony and misdemeanor and other convictions at the national, federal, state, and county levels. The use of pre-employment criminal background checks is regulated by the state of California, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), and local jurisdictions within the state.

Education, licensing, and employment verification help to confirm a candidate’s education or degree, professional license, and job history.

Credit reports provide insight into a candidate’s credit history, bankruptcies, accounts in collection, and defaults. California law restricts employers from running credit checks, except for select positions, including managers, financial workers, law enforcement, and employees who handle others’ sensitive financial and personal information.

Motor vehicle record (MVR) checks verify a candidate’s driver’s license class and status and may reveal violations or the fact of an accident. A California MVR could be useful for an employee who will operate a vehicle on the job. It could also be essential for commercial drivers, especially drivers who are regulated by the US Department of Transportation.

Civil court records reveal a candidate’s non-criminal legal history, which may include restraining orders, tax claims, lawsuits, and more.

Additional database searches might include the National Sex Offender Registry or Global Watch List.

Employers may choose the scope of the search based on their needs, whether that’s a few selected screenings or a more comprehensive background check.

How long does a background check take in California?

The turnaround time to complete a California background check can vary depending on the type and scope of the search, and on whether you choose to do your own research or work with a qualified consumer reporting agency (CRA), like Checkr.

CRAs have access to databases that can speed the screening process. Database screenings—including national criminal records checks and National Sex Offender Registry checks—are often completed within a day. If a national criminal records check returns a potential record, searching county records can take multiple days, especially in California, where personal identifying information is redacted from criminal records and a check of county public records may require a trip to a courthouse.

Checkr ETA, a Checkr product feature, uses machine learning to provide an estimated turnaround time for each background check report. This transparency gives employers and candidates a clearer picture of how long a background check may take, including when human intervention is required.

Choosing to conduct your own background screening can significantly lengthen your timeline. Navigating government databases, submitting court and driving records requests, tracking down past employers, and visiting county courthouses in person can be time-consuming and challenging. Taking the time to understand local, state, and federal laws surrounding background checks can be equally onerous. Partnering with a CRA, like Checkr, can help ease these burdens.

What shows up on a California background check?

What does a background check show in California? Depending on which types of screenings you choose, a background check may include:

  • National, federal, state, and county criminal records, showing pending cases and misdemeanor and felony convictions generally going back 7 years. (If you’re wondering how long felonies stay on your record in California, the answer is indefinitely, unless the record of the felony is expunged.)
  • Driving history and driver’s license status, as shown on a California MVR report from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
  • Verification of education, degrees, and professional licenses.
  • Employment history, including past employers and dates of employment.
  • Credit reports for selected jobs, including managers, financial workers, law enforcement, and other employees who handle others’ sensitive financial and personal information.
  • Drug testing results.

Laws about drug testing in California have been changing since the state legalized both medical and recreational use of marijuana in 2016. Pre-employment drug testing is still allowed if it is applied across the board for selected positions, without discrimination. In California, marijuana testing on the job may become more challenging: A state law going into effect in 2024, for example, restricts employers from testing for off-duty use of marijuana, except in certain industries like construction.

What will show up on your background check? Candidates curious how to find a criminal record in California can request their own records from the state of California or run their own personal background check.

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California state background check laws

A matrix of state laws in California affects when and how employers conduct pre-employment background checks. Here is information on California background check laws, along with state and local Ban the Box laws, and the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. Employers should note how these regulations might apply to their background checks.

The Investigative Consumer Reporting Agency Act (ICRAA)

Summary: The ICRAA, codified in California Civil Code §§1786–§1786.640, parallels the federal FCRA but adds certain requirements that must be followed in California. Under the ICRAA, CRAs may not generally provide background reports that include, for example, convictions older than 7 years or charges or arrests that did not lead to convictions, or any sealed, dismissed, or expunged convictions. Reports may include pending criminal cases. These restrictions generally apply regardless of the expected salary for the position. See law.

California Civil Code § 1785.20.5

Summary: Employers must follow certain steps when they run a credit report on a job candidate, including:

  • Letting the candidate know that a credit report will be used in their hiring decision.
  • Providing the name and address of the consumer reporting agency that issues the report.
  • Providing a free copy of the report, to be delivered at the same time the employer receives it.

See law.

California Civil Code § 1786.18 (a)(7)

Summary: CRAs generally may not report:

  • Convictions that are more than 7 years old, counting back from the date of the report.
  • Non-convictions, including arrests that did not lead to conviction, indictments, and other expunged, sealed, or dismissed records.

See law.

California Labor Code § 222.5

Summary: Employers must generally cover the cost of any pre-employment drug screening or medical examination and can’t deduct these costs from the candidate’s compensation. See law.

California Labor Code § 432.7

Summary: Public and private employers may not generally inquire into an arrest or detention that did not result in conviction, pre-trial or post-trial diversion programs, or dismissed or sealed convictions. Employers may generally ask about pending criminal charges. See law.

California Labor Code § 1024.5, Part 2, Division 2

Summary: Employers may generally consider credit reports as part of their hiring decisions only for the following positions:

  • Managers
  • Positions within the California Department of Justice
  • Law enforcement
  • Positions where the candidate will handle sensitive personal information
  • Positions where the candidate will handle finances
  • Positions where the candidate will have access to trade secrets and other valuable business information
  • Positions where the candidate will have access to at least $10,000 in cash

See law.

Health and Safety Code § 11361.5

Summary: Any California court or agency that maintains custody of records must remove misdemeanor marijuana convictions from the criminal records database 2 years after the date of conviction, or 2 years after the date of arrest if there is no conviction, with some exceptions for records concerning minors on school property. See law.

California Labor Code § 432.3

Summary: Employers may not use a candidate’s salary history as part of their hiring decision or to determine how much salary the position will pay. If asked, an employer must provide a pay scale for the position. See law.

California Rules of Court, Rule 2.507

Summary: Date of birth (DOB) and driver’s license numbers may not be used to identify criminal defendants in public records. As a result of this rule, DOB and driver’s license numbers have been redacted from publicly searchable online databases and public-access terminals in courthouses. See law.

This restriction has made criminal background checks in California more difficult and time consuming, requiring in-person visits to county courthouses to confirm candidates’ identities. Checkr continues to advocate for a legislative solution to this issue, despite a veto of legislation aimed at correcting these problems in September 2022.

State and local Ban the Box laws

Ban the Box laws restrict how and when employers can ask job candidates about their criminal histories during the hiring process. The state of California and two of the state’s most populous cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have enacted Ban the Box laws to encourage fair hiring.

California Fair Chance Act

Summary: California Government Code § 12952 prohibits California public and private employers with at least 5 employees from asking about a candidate’s criminal conviction record on a job application and before offering them a job. Employers can’t inquire about arrests that did not lead to convictions; participation in pre-trial or post-trial diversion programs and their underlying charges; or sealed, expunged or eradicated convictions. If an employer conducts a criminal background check after making a conditional offer, they must make an individual assessment before informing the candidate, in writing, that a job offer is being withdrawn. The employer must provide a copy of the report they relied on and give the candidate five business days to respond. See law.

Los Angeles Fair Chance Initiative for Hiring

Summary: The Los Angeles Fair Chance Initiative for Hiring sets similar requirements as the California Fair Chance Act for private employers and city contractors operating in the city of Los Angeles. Private employers and city contractors may not inquire about a candidate’s criminal record on a job application or before making a conditional offer of employment. They must also follow a fair chance process when a job offer is rescinded due to a candidate’s criminal history, which includes allowing the candidate to respond. See law.

San Francisco Fair Chance Ordinance

Summary: The San Francisco Fair Chance Ordinance applies to San Francisco businesses with at least 5 employees and city contractors. These employers may not ask about a candidate’s criminal history until after extending a conditional offer of employment.  These employers also may not consider the following in pre-employment screening:

  • Arrests that did not lead to conviction, except for pending cases
  • Participation in diversion or deferral of judgment programs
  • Dismissed, expunged, invalidated, or inoperative convictions
  • Juvenile convictions
  • Offenses other than felonies or misdemeanors (such as infractions)
  • Convictions more than 7 years old, except for positions that involve supervising minors or dependent adults
  • Convictions for decriminalized conduct, including the non-commercial use and cultivation of cannabis

See law.

Many other cities and counties in California also have local screening laws that may apply to your organization and your candidates. See the County Resources below for more information, and check with your city and county governments to learn more about laws in your jurisdiction.

Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

In addition to state and local laws, all California employers must comply with the federal FCRA when they work with a CRA to obtain background checks and credit reports.

The FCRA requires employers to follow these steps:

  • Provide the candidate with a clear written disclosure about the screening process
  • Obtain written consent from the candidate before conducting a background check
  • Review results and provide a copy of information from the background check to the candidate
  • Follow the adverse action process if the candidate is not offered a job

Keeping up with the many federal, state, and local hiring laws can be challenging, but compliance is essential. Working with a qualified CRA, like Checkr, can simplify how to follow the matrix of legal requirements. Checkr’s platform has built-in tools that help reduce bias and enable compliance with applicable screening laws. When in doubt, employers may consider following the strictest guidelines to avoid potential liability.

County resources

Use the following to learn more about California’s most populous counties, their resources, and local Ban the Box laws.

Alameda County

Across the bay from San Francisco, Alameda County is home to the diverse port city of Oakland and the University of California, Berkeley. The county’s 1.6 million residents work in law enforcement, local government, education, healthcare, technology, manufacturing, and retail. Healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente is headquartered in Oakland. The county’s largest city is Oakland, followed by Fremont and Hayward.

Public Information & Records

  • Ban the Box laws apply to city employers in Berkeley and Oakland.

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Contra Costa County

Contra Costa County sits north and east of Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay Area. The county is home to 1.16 million residents who live in diverse suburbs like its two largest cities, Concord and Antioch. While many Contra Costa County residents work for employers in nearby San Francisco, the county is home to a thriving biotechnology sector as well as a Chevron refinery in Richmond and a C&H Sugar factory in Crockett.

Public Information & Records

  • A Ban the Box law in Richmond applies to city employers and city contractors or subcontractors with at least 10 employees.

Fresno County

Located in the center of California’s Central Valley, Fresno County has its roots in agriculture but also supports strong healthcare, retail, hospitality, education, and food processing sectors for the one million residents who call it home. Fresno is the birthplace of the raisin industry, and the area remains a major producer of almonds, grapes, and pistachios. Fresno county’s biggest cities are Fresno and Clovis.

Public Information & Records

Los Angeles County

The most populous county in the United States is home to nearly 10 million residents. Los Angeles County lives up to its reputation for being both big and diverse. Many Los Angeles County cities are household names: Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and Compton. The county’s economy is equally diverse and includes entertainment, aerospace, a growing tech sector, hospitality and tourism, retail, healthcare, and education. The largest city is Los Angeles, followed by Long Beach, Santa Clarita, and Glendale.

Public Information & Records

  • Ban the Box laws apply to city employers and city contractors in Compton; city employers in Carson; and private sector employers with at least 10 employees in Los Angeles.

Orange County

With more than 3 million residents, Orange County is the third most populous county in the state. The OC economy is diverse, with a strong professional, sciences, and technology sector around Irvine and the University of California, Irvine; a bustling tourism industry centered around Disneyland; and sprawling suburbs that range from Newport Beach and Huntington Beach on the coast to Santa Ana, Brea, and Fullerton heading east.

Public Information & Records

Riverside County

Bordering Los Angeles and Orange Counties to the west and the state of Arizona to the east, Riverside County, with its population of 2.46 million people, includes a mix of dense suburban development and the vast open spaces of the California desert. Its largest city, Riverside, and neighboring Moreno Valley are experiencing rapid growth as people move from Los Angeles and Orange Counties to escape the high cost of living. The county is also home to iconic Palm Springs and the center of Southern California’s wine country, Temecula.

Public Information & Records

Sacramento County

Home to the state’s capital, Sacramento County is about 90 miles inland from San Francisco. Roughly 525,000 of the county’s 1.59 million residents live in the city of Sacramento, with most of the county’s remaining population centered in suburbs like Elk Grove and Citrus Heights. The business of government is key to the local economy, but the area also supports major healthcare organizations, including UC Davis Health and Kaiser Permanente, and large public universities California State University, Sacramento and University of California, Davis.

Public Information & Records

  • Ban the Box laws apply to city contractors in Sacramento with at least 20 employees.

San Bernardino County

San Bernardino County is the largest in the nation by size, encompassing more than 20,000 square miles. Located on the historic Route 66, San Bernardino has a long history as a transportation hub. Even today, the county is home to two Amazon fulfillment centers and a FedEx ground center. Its largest city is San Bernardino, but the back-to-back cities of Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga combined comprise the most populous metro area in the county.

Public Information & Records

San Diego County

California’s southernmost coastal county is also its second most populous. San Diego County’s 3.29 million residents participate in a diverse economy that includes military bases at Camp Pendleton and 32nd Street Naval Station; strong healthcare, education, and biotechnology sectors; and one-of-a-kind employers like Scripps Research and the San Diego Zoo. With a population of 1.4 million, San Diego is the county’s largest city, followed by Chula Vista and Oceanside.

Public Information & Records

San Francisco County

The city of San Francisco is the only city in San Francisco County. Arguably California’s most charming city, San Francisco became a finance hub during the Gold Rush of the 1850s and now supports a growing network of businesses in technology, medical sciences, and hospitality and tourism. Although San Francisco County has a relatively modest population of about 815,000, its metropolitan area includes Oakland and the East Bay, Silicon Valley, and the affluent suburbs of Marin County.

Public Information & Records

  • A Ban the Box law in San Francisco applies to businesses with at least five employees.

Santa Clara County

Santa Clara County is home to Silicon Valley and hundreds of technology companies including Adobe, Alphabet, Apple, Cisco, eBay, HP, Intel, LinkedIn, Nvidia, Paypal, and Zoom. San Jose, the county’s most populous city with just over 1 million residents, has been issued more patents since 1976 than any other US city. The county has 1.89 million residents and three major universities: San Jose State University; Santa Clara University; and Stanford University.

Public Information & Records

Get a California background check with Checkr

The most populous state in the US is also one of the most active in regulating background checks for employment. Partnering with a qualified CRA, like Checkr, can streamline the background check process while helping enable compliance with California’s many state and local laws. Checkr delivers accurate, compliant reports tailored to your needs, so you can make fair, informed hiring decisions to grow your workforce.

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The resources and information provided here are for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Always consult your own counsel for up-to-date legal advice and guidance related to your practices, needs, and compliance with applicable laws.

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About the author

As Compliance Manager, Danielle analyzes the ever-changing laws and regulations affecting background screening to ensure that Checkr and its customers stay compliant. She also writes content to educate employers about background checks, screening best practices, and fair hiring laws. 

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