Court searches are an effective way to get an accurate picture of an individual’s background as well as any current or pending criminal actions. There are two kinds of court searches: database court searches and actual court searches. Each serves a unique purpose and can provide different kinds of information. First, a definition of each:

Database court search – This kind of search seeks criminal records for an individual combined from multiple sources. The database is a centralized repository of historical data pulled from court records at a specific point in time.

Actual court search – This kind of court search seeks criminal information about an individual through a physical or online search of court records. Court searches can be conducted at the federal, state, or county court level. These searches reveal all data on record at the specific court.

Though there may be overlapping information across both searches, there are some key differences between the two. Therefore, there will be instances when you will want to complete one or both types of searches to get the most accurate results.

Key Differences Between Database and Actual Court Searches

Court Searches Cover More Legal Actions

Actual court searches at the municipal level can include misdemeanor and pending court cases that are typically not picked up in a centralized database search. In addition, actual searches at the federal or county level can uncover additional information such as open arrest warrants, cases awaiting trial, or charges for failure to appear.

Databases Must Be Updated

Conducting an actual court search is often a more effective way to get the most accurate, up-to-date information available, a key requirement set by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) for background screening reports. Unlike a database, actual court records don’t have to be updated from another source; court records are the original data source.

Databases must be updated with court data and therefore are not always completely up to date. There can be a time lag between a criminal case being reported in a court and the case being updated in a database. Additional information from a court can always be added to a database, but this can happen days, weeks, or months after the actual court record was updated. Moreover, a database search does not include information from every single court in the county. 

Actual Court Searches Can Be More Time-Consuming

Though some courts provide online access to their records, actual court searches will sometimes require a physical search of records, either in person or with the assistance of a court clerk. With a physical search, it can be time-consuming to visit the courts, request information from court clerks, and search records, especially if the search involves multiple locations.

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How to Choose Between Database Court Searches and Actual Court Searches

Given the differences between database and actual court searches, some background checks might be better suited to one kind of search over another. Here are some key factors to consider when deciding between a database search and an actual court search:

Reason for Conducting a Search

Depending on the purpose of a background check, one kind of search may make more sense than another. Even though actual court searches include more data and don’t require updating to get the most accurate information, there are times when a database search can be a good place to start. For example, conducting a national database court search can be very effective for finding criminal activity a person may have committed in a location different from where they live, such as during a vacation or a business trip.


Conducting both a database and an actual court search, particularly if you’re conducting court searches in multiple locations, can be costly. Depending on your budget, it may make more sense to conduct a database search only. Or you might choose to conduct an actual court search only in the location where an individual currently lives (as opposed to every location they’ve ever lived). 


On the surface, a database search would appear to yield a much quicker turnaround time because searching a database is often faster than visiting a courthouse and searching court records. However, if a database search yields a “hit,” such as a name match, then that information must be verified with the court of record, which can take additional time. Therefore, in some cases, it may make sense to start with an actual court search because doing so may save the time it would take to go to the court to verify database findings later.

When Using a Combination Makes Sense 

Once you’ve considered the factors of budget, time, and the reasons for conducting a background search, it may not be clear that one kind of search is more appropriate than another. In many instances, database and actual court searches can be most effective when used in tandem because one search acts as a kind of backup for the other. One option is to conduct a national database search at the outset of the background check process and supplement it with actual court searches on any results yielded from the database search. Or, for individuals who have moved several times, it might make sense to combine a state database search with an actual court search in one or more counties. This way, you can make effective use of time and money while still conducting the most thorough and accurate search.

Choosing to conduct database court searches and actual court searches doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. In some cases, one kind of search may make more sense, but in other cases, a combination of both kinds of searches may be necessary. Either way, it’s a good idea to work with your background screening partner to determine what makes the most sense based on your budget, timeline, and the goals of your background check program. When you consider these factors, you’ll be better equipped to decide what makes the most sense for your organization.

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