In Virginia, you can be convicted of murder, but if they forget to get your fingerprints afterward, the charge won’t show up on a criminal background check.
It isn’t just a theoretical issue, according to researchers with the Virginia State Crime Commission, who found 751,154 offenses were not applied to criminal histories because of errors.
Of those, 318 were for murder convictions, 1,308 were for rape convictions and 4,602 were for felony assault convictions.
“The magnitude of the issue was somewhat surprising,” Nathan L. Hittle, a staff attorney for the commission, told lawmakers on Thursday.
The state’s criminal records program is built on fingerprint identifications and, in cases where fingerprints aren’t collected, charges won’t appear in a search. Criminal history records are used for inclusion in the sex offender registry, the DNA database, firearms background checks and employment and licensing eligibility.
That becomes a problem later when a background check is conducted on someone, say, purchasing a gun or applying for a job as a police officer.
Lawmakers on the committee, aware of the issue, said they were shocked by the scope of the problem.
“751,000 certainly sounds like a huge issue,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, who serves as vice chairman of the committee.
Hittle said a variety of problems have led to fingerprints not getting collected. Much of the time, he said, the people who should be collecting them simply don’t understand the requirements. Other times, courts don’t collect them either because they forget or they’re understaffed.
In other cases, a defendant may initially be arrested on one charge, at which point prints are collected, but then charged with a new crime and not be reprinted — a pattern that’s not uncommon in major crimes where suspects are initially picked up on minor charges.
“We believe that may be why some of the more serious offenses that have been missed are not making it on the criminal history records,” he said.
The commission’s staff is recommending more than a dozen potential changes to state law to address the issue. They range from requiring the State Police to issue periodic reports on charges that were not included in criminal histories because of missing prints to including those charges in certain background checks.
They also suggested simplifying rules about when fingerprinting is required and standardizing at what point in the process fingerprints are collected.
Obenshain said the commission would work to advance the recommendations during next year’s General Assembly session.