By Bowker, Arthur L.
The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin , Vol. 64, No. 10
In a 1993 drug trafficking case in northern Ohio, all factors, including a computer records check by the arresting agency, indicated that the defendant was a first-time offender. However, queries by the probation officer revealed that the defendant actually was a major out-of-State drug trafficker with numerous prior convictions.
Luckily, the information came to light prior to sentencing, but had the defendant's criminal history been available from the start, the case could have been handled differently. Prosecutors would have viewed the defendant in a much harsher light and could have considered making enhanced, repeat offender charges.
Based on all Federal and State arrest fingerprint cards processed by the FBI, officials estimate that two-thirds of the subjects have prior arrest records. In addition, multi-State offenders - those with both Federal and State records or arrests in more than one State - make up approximately 25 to 30 percent of the group.(1)
Federal, State, and territorial jurisdictions have enacted a variety of statutes that permit or even mandate upgraded charges or enhanced sentences for individuals with prior records. In addition, these jurisdictions often authorize or require that courts impose enhanced sentences for individuals classified as habitual or repeat offenders.(2)
Currently, legislatures nationwide are considering or have adopted mandatory life sentences (commonly known as "three strikes and you're out" statutes) for repeat offenders. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed by Congress, which mandates life imprisonment without parole for Federal offenders with three or more convictions for serious violent felonies or drug offenses, exemplifies this trend. Two factors influence effective enforcement of these statutes: The thorough investigation of suspects' criminal histories and the quality of criminal history records nationwide.
INVESTIGATIONS USING CRIMINAL HISTORY RECORDS
As the 1993 case in northern Ohio illustrates, criminal histories can prove valuable for identifying and prosecuting repeat offenders. Law enforcement administrators and prosecutors should view an offender's prior criminal record as a potential added element of any criminal charge(s) being considered.
To be most effective, however, an offender's criminal history must be detected and legally documented in the preliminary investigative stages. Requirements for legal documentation of criminal histories vary from State to State, but can include a subject's confession to prior convictions, certified copies of the journal entries of convictions from other courts, fingerprint records, and establishment of the functional equivalent of convictions from other States.
Often, investigators discover a lengthy prior record too late, even after a defendant has pled guilty to an offense. This can have a disastrous effect on prosecuting a repeat offender. For instance, in at least one State, prosecutors must charge suspects as repeat offenders within 14 days of the arraignment or they are barred from initiating this sentencing enhancement later in the case.(3)
Guidelines for Initial Records Checks
Law enforcement administrators should be familiar with their State's statutes concerning charge and sentence enhancement and the legal proof required to establish a suspect's criminal history. Such knowledge will help law enforcement agencies develop general guidelines on the scope and depth of investigations into criminal histories. Ideally, all of the following factors should be considered in the development of such guidelines:
* How serious is the current charge? Is it a felony or misdemeanor? Is it a violent, property, or victimless crime?
* Can prior convictions/arrests significantly aid the prosecution and/or enhance the current charge(s) or sentence?
* How recent are prior convictions or arrests?(4)
* Where did the prior conviction/ arrest occur? …