Complete Guide to County Background Checks

Denise Hemke
May 18, 2023
5 min read

Criminal background checks are a component of many pre-employment screenings and may search national databases, federal courts, and state or county records for reportable criminal activity. County searches provide a thorough search of criminal records available at the county level, where most records occur. Learn what shows up on a county background check and how they can help provide a comprehensive look into a candidate's background for informed hiring decisions.

Because most crimes are prosecuted in the state court system—usually in county courts—county criminal records searches are an important component of a criminal background check. However, a county criminal records check typically isn’t the starting point for a background screening. Generally, the first step is a nationwide criminal background check, which searches approximately 1,800 databases and 900 million records across the United States. If a “hit” or potential record is found, employers may wish to do further investigation by conducting a county criminal history search.

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What is a county background check?

Each of the nearly 3,200 counties in the United States maintain county criminal records. A county background check searches for criminal charges and convictions in these courts. Because county courts are where most felony and misdemeanor cases are filed, they generally have the most current and accurate records for those cases. County background checks can provide more comprehensive information than a national criminal records search, including the candidate’s complete identifying information and the final outcome of their case.

It may be considered best practice to perform criminal background checks in the state and county where the candidate lives. Depending on what appears in the results of a national criminal background check, you may also decide to conduct criminal record screenings in counties where a candidate previously lived or worked.

The specific information in a county criminal records search may differ depending on the court system. However, it usually includes the following information:

  • Defendant’s name
  • Case number
  • Charge classification (i.e., felony or misdemeanor)
  • Type of charge
  • Disposition of the case (i.e., convicted, acquitted, dismissed)
  • Date of disposition
  • Any sentencing information

County vs. state background checks

A state criminal background check can return criminal records throughout the state, including those outside the candidate’s county of residence, so it might seem like the logical place to start before delving into county records. However, the accuracy of state criminal records can vary depending on state laws, record-keeping systems, when and how state records are updated, and other factors. For instance, a state may not search every county’s database, or state and county criminal records databases may not be connected.

As a result, employers can use a county criminal background check to get the most current, accurate criminal history and may want to conduct a state search in addition to, not in place of, a county search. Laws or regulations may require state criminal background checks for positions in some industries, such as transportation, child care, or health care.

What shows up on a county criminal background check?

County criminal background checks search information in the relevant counties’ criminal records division. The result of a county criminal background check may show the following information.

  • Dispositions indicate the final outcome or current status of a criminal case; for example, whether the individual was acquitted or convicted or the case was dismissed.
  • A felony conviction means the person was found guilty of a serious crime, such as murder, arson, rape, or serious drug crimes.
  • A misdemeanor conviction indicates the individual was found guilty of a lesser offense, such as public intoxication, vandalism, or shoplifting.
  • The sentence is the court-ordered punishment for someone convicted of a crime.
  • A pending status means that charges have been filed, but there hasn’t yet been a conviction, acquittal, plea, or withdrawal or dismissal of charges.
  • Warrants authorize law enforcement to arrest an individual. In some cases, warrants remain on criminal records after the warrant has been executed.

Although it can vary from one state to another, the following information generally won’t show up on a county criminal records check:

  • Traffic violations and driving infractions usually appear on a motor vehicle records (MVR) check. Depending on state law, driving-related felonies and misdemeanors may not appear on a criminal records search; in this case, you may want to add an MVR check for a more comprehensive screening results.
  • Infractions or petty offenses are violations of laws or municipal codes typically punishable by fines. Examples may include minor traffic violations, jaywalking, or fishing without a license.
  • Federal criminal offenses such as embezzlement, identity theft, or tax evasion won’t appear on a county criminal records check; they require a federal background check.
  • Juvenile offenses generally are not reported on a county criminal background check.
  • Charges that were dismissed. Although the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) allows consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) to report dismissed charges up to 7 years old, records in some locations do not show dismissed charges.
  • Sealed or expunged records. Expungement erases a criminal record. Sealed records are not erased; however, they are not accessible to the public.

How far back does a county background check go?

County background checks generally lookback 7 years. However, records may go back further, depending on state and local laws. For example, criminal convictions older than 7 years cannot be reported on background checks in 9 states, although they can be in the remaining 41 states, and Washington DC. Regulations in some industries also make exceptions to the 7-year lookback rule, allowing employers to look back indefinitely at criminal convictions.

Employers who partner with a CRA to conduct background checks must comply with the FCRA. The FCRA restricts non-conviction information reported by a CRA to a 7-year lookback period which includes arrests, civil judgments, tax liens, and most credit report information. It excludes bankruptcies, which may be reported for up to 10 years and criminal convictions which may be reported indefinitely. If a candidate’s expected salary is $75,000 or higher or if searches are conducted by the employer themselves, these limitations may not apply.

In addition to the FCRA, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines and state and local Ban the Box laws may also impact the consideration of criminal records in the hiring process. For example, Ban the Box laws may restrict when a criminal background check can be performed, such as requiring employers to wait until a conditional offer of employment has been made.

How long does a county background check take?

How long a county background check takes can range from less than a day to 10 business days or more. The length of time varies depending on how records are maintained, the scope of the search, and whether you conduct the search yourself or use a consumer reporting agency (CRA) to do so.

While most county courts today have digitized records, some still use paper documents. Digitized records may be searchable online or accessible using the courthouse’s public access terminals. Courts that keep physical records rely on a county clerk for background checks as they maintain criminal records. Searches of digitized records are usually faster than those of physical records; the latter typically require visiting the courthouse to get copies of the documents.

The scope of a county criminal records search is another factor in turnaround times. For example, searching records in multiple counties can take longer than searching a single county’s records. Finding records for a candidate who has used other names in the past may also add complexity to the search.

When searching county criminal records, CRAs use personal identifiable information (PII) such as name and birth date to ascertain the records belong to the right individual. Some states and counties have begun redacting full date of birth from court records, using only a partial birth date (such as month and year) instead. This makes it more difficult to confirm matches; for CRAs that rely on manual record verification, it can add significantly to turnaround times. Checkr’s proprietary technology helps us overcome potential bottlenecks from DOB redactions by using other available data to make probabilistic matches between records and individuals.

Using an experienced CRA, like Checkr, can help speed county background checks. Where in-person visits to the courthouse are required, CRA’s often have a network of court runners to access records efficiently. Modern technology can also accelerate turnaround times when courthouses have digital records. To provide a better idea of how long a specific candidate’s background check will take, Checkr’s offers our unique Checkr ETA feature. Using machine learning, Checkr ETA uses past history to predict accurate turnaround times for background screenings and keep you and your candidate updated on the status.

How to get a county background check

Employers can choose to conduct county criminal background checks on their own by requesting records directly from individual counties, but this can be a laborious process.

To streamline the process for human resources teams, employers often choose to partner with an experienced background check provider, like Checkr.

Checkr’s modern technology and real-time data network can easily identify and access relevant criminal records to deliver fast, accurate results. All of Checkr’s packages include a national background check to use as a “pointer search” for potential criminal records that may exist for a candidate. If a hit is returned on a national background check, Checkr uses that information to determine which counties to automatically conduct a county background check for additional criminal record information.

Additionally, you can run county checks based on the counties that return in a candidate’s SSN Trace address history, including an unlimited option to search all counties that return on the SSN Trace. Checkr also offers Continuous Checks to surface changes in candidate records in real-time, including county criminal data.

Understanding and following the various legal regulations can be challenging for any HR team. Working with a trusted third-party provider can help. Checkr’s platform has built-in technology designed to surface only legally reportable results to reduce bias, while workflows are being continuously updated to help enable compliance with applicable federal, state, and local screening laws.

Get a county background check with Checkr

No matter what type of criminal background check you need, Checkr can help. Our customizable background screening packages allow you to conduct compliant screenings including federal, national, state, and county criminal background checks. Our advanced technology and experience with county court systems helps us deliver background check reports quickly and accurately. Checkr’s built-in workflows and compliance tools assist with adjudication, individualized assessments, adverse action, and more, helping to support compliance while supporting fair hiring.

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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.

About the author

As Chief Product Officer at Checkr, Denise is responsible for leading the product vision, teams, and roadmap to deliver customer delight and innovation while advancing our mission of building a fairer future. Denise brings a relentless focus on customer success, adoption, and innovation to meet our customers’ needs.

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