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When searching criminal background check (PA) records, there is a loophole that allows anyone to request and receive specific records from the state repository as of April 2021, due to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws.
Every state has its own FOIA procedures in place. In Pennsylvania, public records, including criminal background information, are accessible to would-be employers, landlords, banking institutions, professional certification agencies, and others using a written (or online) request.
PA Criminal Background Check (Loophole for Direct State Criminal Record Report)
The Pennsylvania Police Department offers instructions on how to obtain criminal records. Anyone can mail an $8 money order with their request payable to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the following address if unable to submit the criminal record’s request online:
Mail requests to:
Pennsylvania State Police Central Repository-164
1800 Elmerton Avenue
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9758
By writing to the repository and paying the fee, this loophole allows anyone to obtain information on someone’s criminal convictions (including those for yourself), charges that exist no more than 3 years from the date of recent arrest (and that have not been disposed), and any warrants that have been issued (as long as the information has been sent to the PA repository).
Conducting an Authorized Inquiry for PA History Search Using PATCH
Those who need a criminal background check PA can access Pennsylvania’s Access to Criminal History portal or P.A.T.C.H., an online repository kept by the state and maintained under the Pennsylvania Criminal Information Act detailed in Chapter 91 of the Title 18 Crimes Code.
P.A.T.C.H. provides direct access to public criminal record history requests, using an email or digital request, as well as access to dispositions (the final decision by the court) on most criminal cases through a Pennsylvania Judiciary website that provides a review of court dockets.
Almost anyone can get an “authorized inquiry” to request a criminal background check through the Pennsylvania Police website, and the patch system thanks to the loophole provided by the state.
To request a criminal history by mail first downloading a form:
- Form SP4-164: Criminal History Request
The following steps can be used to perform a search:
Step 1. Navigate to the PATCH Website and choose the records check search required (Submit a New Record Check)
For volunteers, this process is less expensive, so the option to search for a volunteer check can be used when doing background checks for volunteers.
If the search is being used for a volunteer position or organization, the $22.00 fee is waived.
Step 3. Choose ‘individual’ or ‘company’ search.
The form is slightly different for an individual making a criminal background check PA, than for a company.
Step 4. Complete the personal information section (red asterisks mark required information).
Step 5. Submit the search and enter payment information, and if requesting a notarized report, pay the additional $5.00 fee.
The confirmation system is done through email, so double check your entries to ensure they’re correct.
Conducting an Authorized Inquiry for PA History Search Using PATCH for Volunteers Only
Volunteers who need a background check can follow a separate set of instructions, if required:
Step 1. Navigate to the PATCH Website and choose the records check search required (Volunteer Only)
Step 2: Read the terms and conditions and accept the Volunteer Acknowledgment Section at the bottom of the page.
Step 3: Enter all the information requested including the name of the volunteer organization, its address, and phone number.
Step 4: Navigate to the Records Check Results Page. Click the Control Number listed there.
Step 5: Click Certification Form, and choose the name of the person the background check will be conducted on.
Step 6: Take note of the request date and control number to provide to the human resources department where volunteering.
Step 7: Human resources can expect to receive one of the following results from the inquiry:
- No Record: an indication that there’s no criminal history for the individual searched.
- Pending: The criminal background check is still processing.
- Request Under Review: Similar to a pending result, except that the record can be checked again in the future for possible results.
- Record: When something shows up on the background check it is emailed or mailed to the human resources department indicated for the volunteer agency and a copy is provided to the person the background check is conducted on.
Who Can Check Pennsylvania Criminal History Records?
In Pennsylvania, any U.S. citizen can request public records under Section 102 of the Right-to-Know Law.
|Type of Background Check Required||States Requiring Criminal Background Check|
|Statewide and FBI for Specific Individuals||Alaska, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio|
|Statewide and FBI for Everyone||Delaware, Washington D.C., Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Utah|
|Statewide for Everyone||Arizona, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oregon, Virginia, Wisconsin|
|Statewide for All, FBI for Some Individuals||Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Washington|
|Statewide for Some Individuals||California, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont|
|No requirements||Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming|
Can an Agency Charge for Background Information?
Pennsylvania FOIA laws allow agencies to charge fees for postage, reprinting, duplication, electronic access, or any other fees that are deemed needed for providing information to the public.
The fees for requesting access to criminal background check records are minimal.
Pennsylvania Criminal History Background Check Fees are as follows:
- SP4-164: $22 for a Standard record check. This type is not notarized.
- SP4-164A: Free for volunteers at an agency.
- SP4-170: $20 for individual access to background check records, mail only.
- Notary Fee: $5 optional, for standard record check requests.
- Fingerprint-based FBI checks: $21.35 (estimate)2
How Long Does an Agency Have to Find Criminal Background Check PA Information?
Pennsylvania FOIA laws suggest that an agency, including those listed below, must respond within 5 days to any formal request. This applies to state and local background checks that are usually immediately accessible online.
However, an FBI criminal background check usually takes a bit longer. Complete processing from the time an individual submits an application to the final results can vary but is normally 4 to 6 weeks. If the results don’t come back within 6 weeks, call 783-6211 or (877) 371-5422.
However, digital fingerprinting services can expedite the federal background search, reducing the time it will take to get results.
Pennsylvania Criminal History: Mandatory Criminal Background Check (PA) Laws
There are some record-keeping agencies that must comply with FOIA requests.4 Public records from these Pennsylvania agencies can be accessed through FOIA.
PA Driver History Records
Pennsylvania statute 52 pa. codes 29.504 and 29.505 require that drivers and common carriers that transport passenger companies (like taxis, Uber drivers, Lyft drivers, etc.) maintain driver history records for at least two years as well as criminal history records for at least three years, and that these are available for public perusal via FOIA requests.3
Employer Use of Criminal History Records in PA
The loophole for obtaining Pennsylvania background check records in regard to employer use is clear. The Criminal History Record Information Act, 9101 and 9183 state:
- All employers within Pennsylvania can utilize FOIA laws to access criminal history records, including misdemeanors as well as anyone who needs to know if they have a misdemeanor on record.
- All employees in Pennsylvania can utilize FOIA laws to retain a private right of action.
- The District Attorney’s Office enforces violations of criminal background check privacy violations, although a lack of enforcing breach of privacy offenses has recently been called to attention. Laws that were meant to protect minors and children are being skirted by some organizations.4
- The Pennsylvania State Police are charged with giving out background check information, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is supposed to handle discrimination claims. Employers can also learn how to find out if someone was arrested in all fifty states, including PA.
Prospective Childcare Employees’ Criminal History Records in PA
The loophole for obtaining Pennsylvania background check records in regard to prospective personnel who will work with children is covered under the Pennsylvania General Assembly Title 23. It mandates criminal background checks for anyone who will provide childcare or work with children and covers all childcare providers in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Office administers and enforces Title 23.
For those who need the results of their own background check as it pertains to a potential child welfare position, they can visit the Child Welfare Information Solution website (CWIS) to create an account, and fill out their application.
Before starting the application they may want to access old tax records or other files they have to recall all the residences lived in since 1975, as well as all the people lived with. These will be needed for the application. The solution website provides immediate results, or they can download an application to submit by snail-mail at Keep Kids Safe.
Prospective Employees of Private and Public Schools Criminal History Records in PA
Under Title 24, potential employees who will work at private or public schools must obtain state and federal background checks that include criminal history. Title 24 covers current and potential employees, as well as contractors and temporary workers who have direct contact with children. The Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Office administers and enforces Title 24.
All potential employers must run the following searches on potential employees at private and public schools alike:
- A Pennsylvania Police Criminal Background Check (police reports might show up on background checks so be sure to know the rules of when they do)
- A Department of Human Resources Child Abuse Check
- A Federal Criminal History (FBI) Report that is run with fingerprints.
Pennsylvania State Abuse History Clearance
For those who abuse the mandates to report criminal activity or maintain records on employees in Pennsylvania, there is a website set up to protect whistleblowers with the PA Human Resources Department.
Penalties Outlined in Pennsylvania State Criminal History Searches
Criminal background check PA does not come without penalties for those who don’t report criminal activity or refuse to maintain the mandated records as outlined in Pennsylvania’s FOIA laws. School administrators and others required to file background checks periodically on their employees are subject to legal action if a possible violation is found.
If regulators and the Pennsylvania Public Attorneys’ office find that there is a violation, the school is notified in writing, and that there was a willful violation within Sec. 1-111 of the Code.
Federal Criminal History Search Addition to PA
Federal background checks are part of Pennsylvania’s state criminal background check (PA) mandates.
Pennsylvania uses an electronic fingerprinting vendor, IDEMIA, for Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) criminal history background checks. This addition to the background check law is now required due to Act 114 of 2006, 24 PS 1-111 which was amended as Act 61 in 2008.
Before 2017 this was only a requirement for out-of-state applicants, but now covers anyone living in or outside of Pennsylvania.
Expedited FBI background checks can sometimes be completed in less than 24-48 hours as long as everyone involved signs off on the expedited check. The process happens through a third party called a channeler:
- Apply to be the authorized recipient of the results (or the employer does a sign-off.) Give the channeller (third-party) access to personal information and fingerprint data.
- The FBI receives the data and the request through the channeler.
- Pay the channeler approximately $50 to rush an FBI background check.
- Fingerprints are electronically given to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS), which is essentially the FBI’s high-tech hub where they keep everyone’s data.
- The CJIS completes an Identity History Summary Check.
- The channeler gets results from the Identity History Summary Check (IHSC) from the CJIS.
- The criminal background results are found as they show up in the FBI’s databases.
Since employment often hinges on a background check’s information, and Pennsylvania has mandates for employers to conduct these checks prior to hiring, it may be worth it to use a third party to expedite the FBI background check. However, it is not a requirement.
For anyone needing to know what is on their criminal background check (PA) in Pennsylvania, or for those who must follow mandates to run background checks on their employees, it is important to understand Pennsylvania’s FOIA loophole, in order to keep background check information up-to-date and accurate.
1Pennsylvania FOIA procedures. Dec. 14, 2021. (n.d.). Ballotpedia. <https://ballotpedia.org/Pennsylvania_FOIA_procedures#How_to_request_public_>
2How to obtain PA mandated background check certifications. Dec. 14, 2021. (2020, February 2). Chester County Council. <https://www.cccbsa.org/resources/pa-background-checks/clearances/>
3LNP | LANCASTERONLINE EDITORIAL BOARD. Dec. 14, 2021. (2020, January 22). Pa.’s background check law isn’t being enforced. Lawmakers and law enforcement need to act. [opinion]. LancasterOnline. <https://lancasteronline.com/opinion/editorials/pa-s-background-check-law-isnt-being-enforced-lawmakers-and-law-enforcement-need-to-act/article_67862af2-3cae-11ea-a47e-6b6c41783651.html>
4Background Check Laws Pennsylvania. Shnader. Dec. 14, 2021. <https://www.schnader.com/files/Publication/37408cc7-40df-4c08-8c38-e0ce9209e2ff/Presentation/PublicationAttachment/42c7f6b8-6e5a-4dbc-9b72-e5998c170959/Background%20Check%20Laws%20Pennsylvania.pdf>