Q&A with Cody Funkhouser, Criminal Research Analyst
Federal criminal records are unique not only in terms of the types of cases that are housed in the files, but also in terms of the way they are reported, searched, and retrieved. Since 1999, many case files are maintained and made available through the United States Courts’ internet-based PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) service. Cases created before 1999 continue to be maintained in paper format or, if eligible for permanent preservation, stored in national archives that must be searched by hand.
When the PACER service was introduced in 1999, the industry was excited to have an automated way of facilitating federal records research. However, the weakness in PACER was immediately apparent and continues to challenge the industry today.
We sat down with Cody Funkhouser, a Federal Criminal Research Analyst at Wholesale Screening Solutions, to learn how Wholesale Screening Solutions deals with the unique nature and challenges of federal criminal records research.
Q. What is it about the PACER service that makes federal records research so challenging?
A. The challenge of the PACER service is that it does not include Date of Birth (DOB) information for the subject of the search nor, typically, other identifiers. So, it is difficult to determine whether or not identifiers in a specific criminal record match those of a particular individual.
The Executive Director of the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA), Melissa Sorenson, wrote an opinion piece for the Morning Consult in which she explained, “DOBs are systemically unavailable in the federal record keeping system known as PACER, and an increasing number of state and local courts are also redacting this information.”
This makes it extraordinarily difficult for our customers, professional background screeners, or consumer reporting agencies, to conclusively determine whether or not the identifiers within a specific criminal record match the identifiers of a particular individual. Common names further complicate this analysis.
Q. How does a researcher’s approach to federal criminal records differ from county-level research?
A. In a county search, we are generally able to capture more identifiers up front and our approach is to provide court records with identifiers that match the identifiers of the subject provided by our customer. In a federal search, we often only have a name to work with so the PACER system returns all possible matches. Adding to this, each case typically contains 50 – 1000 pages of notes to sift through which includes everything about the case starting from day one. These cases read like a story and identifiers are peppered throughout the documents. Finding the identifiers can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, so the review effort is more intense.
Q. How is Wholesale Screening Solutions helping to solve the inherent challenges of federal criminal records research?
A. At Wholesale Screening, we built a proprietary system that sits between PACER and our own internal operating system. Known as iFed (Intelligent Federal Research), the system uses proprietary intelligent automation to minimize the need for manual verifications. The system is trained to locate identifiers, narrow down research results, and guide researchers to faster, more highly accurate results. As a research analyst, having a tool like iFed makes my job far more accurate, efficient and effective.
If you’re looking for a partner who can fulfill your needs in this area, we invite you to give Wholesale Screening Solutions a try.