More than a third of criminal records are missing from the online Department of Public Safety database available to the public, a Fort Worth company found in a study.
Even government agencies, which have access to more detailed criminal records to screen teachers, doctors, volunteers and tradespeople, use a DPS system fraught with gaps, officials and experts said.
Problems exist because of human error and because of spotty reporting from law enforcement agencies, courts and district attorneys that provide information.
Even records of Death Row inmates are missing from the public database, according to the study by Imperative Information Group, a Fort Worth background investigation company. The company studied 562 felony and misdemeanor cases.
"We know that the data is not very reliable," said Mike Coffey, president of Imperative. "There’s a false sense of security that this criminal background check is going to be effective."
The public database lists reported convictions, and those are listed only after DPS has received complete records, from arrest to final disposition of the case.
Government agencies and others authorized by the Legislature, such as private schools and nursing homes, can view more detailed information, including arrests and open cases. But agencies often look only for convictions, Coffey said.
"I don’t believe that . . . agencies are chasing down arrests or nonconviction data to see if there is more [information] at the county," he said.
And even if they check the more detailed secure database, there may be gaps in it as well, such as when a conviction is not reported, a DPS official said.
Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman, said such problems aren’t new. Some counties report as little as 17 percent of convictions to DPS.
"It’s been going on for a number of years," she said. "There’s nothing we can do to force them to fix that problem."
Statewide, local agencies reported 747,216 criminal charges to DPS, according to 2006 statistics, the most recent year available; 69 percent of those were listed as completed.
DPS has no way of knowing how many of the missing dispositions were convictions or might reflect dropped charges or acquittals.
Mike Vaughn, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University, said similar problems, including typos and erroneous information, have been found in the Texas Crime Information Center. The center is a separate database that provides law enforcement agencies with information about stolen property, wanted and missing people, sex offenders and other information.
"Any time you have human beings entering data, you’re going to have mistakes," Vaughn said. "I think there needs to be more people assigned to the tasks if we’re going to rely on these systems. The government has obligation and a duty to make sure the systems are accurately reflecting the criminal histories of people within the database."
The Texas Medical Board, which is aware of limitations of the DPS database, uses several additional screening methods to check the criminal history of applicants for medical licenses.
It also uses FBI criminal history reports, queries of other states’ sex offender lists and various other databases to verify applicants’ professional character, Jaime Garanflo, director of licensure, said in an e-mail.
"Because of the multiple queries that we do, we are able to compare findings and identify discrepancies," Garanflo said. "Limitations such as these are always a concern, but we do the best we can. . ."
Reporting and tracking
At the time of an arrest, a tracking number is supposed to be assigned, and all information, along with fingerprints, is supposed to be reported to DPS within seven days. As the case moves through the criminal justice system, county officials are required to provide updates to DPS.
Prosecutors have 30 days to report action taken on the offense, and court clerks have 30 days to report the final disposition.
Tarrant County system
The Tarrant County district attorney’s office has 43 agencies that routinely submit cases for review and filing, Tarrant County prosecutor Miles Brissette said.
Each has the option of using more reliable electronic filing or the older paper forms to submit cases. The Sheriff’s Department, for example, electronically communicates arrest information, spokesman Terry Grisham said.
The district attorney’s office updates information to DPS every day at midnight. Upon completion of a felony case, information is sent by the district clerk’s office to DPS. For misdemeanors, the county clerk uploads the information to Austin.
"The days of fingerprint ink on a prisoner are really going away by the wayside," Brissette said.
In Tarrant County, 49,029 charges against adults were reported to DPS in 2006, and 80 percent of those were reported completed, according to the agency.
Imperative examined 62 Tarrant County cases in the public database, and found that 43.5 percent had records missing. The study was done in October.
Online: To check the DPS criminal history database, go to: records.txdps.state.tx.us. Each record search costs about $3, plus fees.