Washington State's Lucrative History Lesson

Washington State's Lucrative History Lesson

By John Makulowich



P. Douglas Sund,
WATCH program administrator


Go beyond the slices of the Red Delicious apple that grace the Washington state Web site, and you can gather a person's criminal history over the Internet for $10.

Such information is available through a program named WATCH. It stands for Washington Access To Criminal History and is part of Gov. Gary Locke's quality improvement program.

Surprised? Don't be. The same information is available to the public by law in Washington and a number of other states, including Texas and Florida.

What's different here - and probably will be in other states soon - is the number of requests this form of access is generating from Boy and Girl Scout units, soccer clubs and other groups that can be a magnet for people with a criminal past.

Washington's Internet site (watch.wsp.wa.gov/) makes clear the ground rules: "Washington State allows anyone to obtain Washington State criminal history conviction information. With this search engine, you may request, view and print criminal history conviction records. However, to inquire about a person and to obtain his or her record, you must enter the correct date of birth and exact spelling of the person's name. Otherwise, the criminal history record you want will not be found."

Among the unexpected responses to the Web-based system for the program's administrator, P. Douglas Sund, is the number of requests generated over the Internet. The information services division commander for the Washington State Patrol managed the implementation of WATCH.

"One of the surprises was how quickly people have caught on and migrated to Internet access and away from paper. The bulk of users - boys and girls clubs, soccer teams checking on volunteers for leadership positions and coaching, for example - come by word of mouth," Sund said. "The volume has increased dramatically this year."

The data provided by Sund paint a convincing picture. In January, 1,000 inquires came via the Web site. In February, that rose to 2,000. March saw 4,000 requests; April, 6,000; and May, 10,000. He fully expects 15,000 to 16,000 when the June numbers are tallied.

Each inquiry represents a request that costs $10. This means Washington state may pull in $160,000 on criminal history requests for the first half of 1998 if Sund's estimates pan out.

Spurring the Web access was not just the desire of the Washington State Patrol to make the information more readily available. It was also the backlog of paper requests. That backlog still exists but is getting thinner. Sund expects to see even more dramatic Web numbers when the paper backlog is down to zero.

Sund is no novice to IT, which partly explains the success of the WATCH program. He gained 16 years experience with information systems while serving a range of public and private sector organizations, including law enforcement, health care, insurance, manufacturing, utilities, telecommunications, distribution, retail and transportation. His positions spanned executive-level consulting, project management, systems design, development and implementation, data center management and operations.

While Sund has yet to see the system generate a false positive - that is, a person identified as having a criminal past who, in fact, does not - he strongly encourages those that use the system to request photo identification as part of the background check and to confirm name, Social Security number and date of birth.

Sund also notes that Washington is not an open record state, meaning a state that makes available to anyone at any time individual records held by public agencies. Clearly, open record states are not the norm.

"We get a range of calls about our program," Sund said. "For example, Big Brothers and Sisters in New Mexico called recently, wanting to know how to set up a program like WATCH."

Sund tells them they need to do their homework. The first question to address is who owns the criminal history data. Is it the state's justice department, its highway patrol? The answer will determine where the data are stored.


P. Douglas Sund said Washington state has received numerous
calls from organizations looking for information to set up their own
WATCH-type programs.
The second question is whether the data are publicly available. Lastly, Sund tells them they need to find an advocate, someone who can speak to the owners of the data and help speed access to it.

"The question I hear most often is, 'Is there a move to make this national?' And my answer is, 'How would you do it? Not only are the data owned by different departments with different levels of technology, but there are no standards for the form the data are in," Sund said. "I don't see a national system anytime soon."

Even the WATCH system is limited in the data made available to the public. For example, citizens can only look up information on convictions. However, law enforcement officials can use the database to look up data on criminal charges as well.

In Texas, which passed legislation that took effect Sept. 1, 1997, criminal history information is now available over the Internet. Its Web site carried the statement: "This site allows you to obtain information about criminal conviction and felony deferred adjudication records maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). Courts and criminal justice agencies throughout the state submit these records to DPS."

According to Sherri Deatherage Green, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety (www.txdps.state
.tx.us/), the public now can access the conviction records database over the Internet.

"The criminal history database has always been open record in Texas," said Green. "But you had to go to 254 individual courthouses to get all the data. And investigation and arrest information was not allowed out. Also, you could always get your own but others could not."

In the last session, Texas legislators voted to put sex offender information on the Internet. That decision called for extracting from the total database sex offender information, criminal convictions and felony deferred adjudications, which are cases in which the person enters a plea and the judge places them on probation. Once that period ends, the judgment is removed from the public database. However, the Texas legislature excluded some instances, including those individuals applying for a permit to carry a concealed handgun.

"One important point to make is that you can't positively link someone to a criminal history without fingerprints," adds Green, which is a fact also prominently mentioned on the Washington state Web site. "That's partly because cases of alias names and dates of birth are common."

At the other extreme, with a limited Web presence, are the numerous police departments that allow a user to make a request for his or her own information and pick it up in person. Again, positive identification is based on a fingerprint comparison. One case in point is the Manchester Police Department in Manchester, N.H. Its policy was instituted last fall, according to Dale Robinson, deputy chief of the department.

"At this time, we don't allow Internet access to criminal history simply because the law does not permit it. When you make a request over the Internet by filling in the form on our Web page, you are requesting a copy of your own record and only for Manchester, nowhere else," Robinson said. "We take the request and forward it to the records department, which treats it like any other request."

The Internet method saves the requester time, since typically obtaining a criminal history check requires going to the police department, waiting in line and then waiting while your criminal history is checked. By filling out the form and submitting it electronically, the criminal history check is completed before the requester arrives.

Criminal History Web Inquiries

January 1,000
February 2,000
March 4,000
April 6,000
May 10,000
June 15,000 to
16,000 (projected)

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