Excerpted from a Los Angeles Times article by Caroline Petrow-Cohen

Significant delays in the processing of background checks are causing headaches across California, leaving applications for jobs and housing stuck in limbo while making it harder for employers and landlords to screen for criminal records.

The situation stems from a state appellate court ruling more than three years ago, which industry experts say has blocked background screeners and any court researcher from using date of birth or driver’s license information to narrow down search results as they investigate an individual’s criminal history.

The 2021 decision in All of Us or None of Us vs. Hamrick arose from a case brought by criminal justice reform advocates who have long argued that background checks lead to discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.

A panel at the 4th District Court of Appeals determined that Riverside County’s Superior Court website, which allowed users to input dates of birth and driver’s license numbers while searching for criminal records, was in violation of a state court rule that says such information should be excluded from court “indexes” accessible to the public through “electronic means.”

“After considering the text, history, and purpose” of the rule, the judges found that state courts should limit search criteria for the public, effectively eliminating the use of birth dates and license numbers.

Those personal identifiers had long been used to match individuals to their records, and without them it has proved nearly impossible to conduct searches that involve common names, industry experts say.

“This was an interpretation that no one had ever seen before or seen coming,” said Melissa Sorenson, executive director of the Professional Background Screening Association. “Each of the courts is trying to figure out how to comply.”

Delays are particularly bad in Los Angeles County, where background check firms receive about 100,000 screening requests each month.

“Right now, L.A. County is an example of something that’s not sustainable,” Sorenson said.

Residents with common names or those with a long history in the area may have to wait for months or even years for their background check to be completed, Sorensen said, if it’s possible for it to be completed at all.

It has taken time for courts to adjust since the 2021 appellate ruling was handed down. The Superior Court of Los Angeles announced its changes in February.

“All the background screener can do is plug in Jose Rodriguez, for example, and because it’s a relatively common name in L.A., you could get back hundreds to thousands of results,” Sorenson said. “We have no way to filter based on any other identifier.”

Dates of birth are contained within physical court files, the Superior Court of Los Angeles said.

“These restrictions require background checkers seeking information on commonly named individuals to visit the courthouse where the physical court file is located to determine if the information they obtained in an electronic criminal record search applies to the person about whom they are inquiring,” the court said in an email.

The court limits the number of case files it will retrieve for a requester to five per day at any courthouse. For names with thousands of results, it’s not practical to check each physical file.

At the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, the county’s busiest criminal clerk’s office, additional court service assistants have been assigned to assist with file viewing requests. The current wait time to pull multiple files at a time is three to five days, the court said.

For the full story, please click here.