How does one explain charges on a criminal record for new employer?
May 30, 2013 2:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm applying for a new job for the government as an engineer. I have several charges from my past, but no convictions. The charges were felonies, and became misdemeanors after a plea. I completed probation with no violations as part of a deferred sentence, so all charges have been dismissed. What level of detail should my explanation have?

The person in HR asked that I "explain the circumstances surrounding these charges and/or convictions," so this instruction is at least somewhat boiler-plate, and pretty vague. I do not want to ask the HR department what they want me to say, because I am afraid that will look like me trying to be sneaky.

What level of detail should I go into? I would like to avoid giving them the police report (because everyone involved including the arresting officers agreed that is was a wild exaggeration and fabrication when questioned), and I would certainly like to avoid giving graphic details about these alcohol fueled/related charges and what exactly happened during my arrest. Of course, I do not want to be dishonest or even lie by omission. The fewer things that I volunteer to trigger any personal biases now or down the road the better.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is this a job that requires a clearance? If so, then expect a very close examination of your felony charges by the clearance investigator. The fact that the charges were dismissed does not mean that they cannot be used against you for clearance purposes.

The easy answer to HR is, "I didn't commit a crime. Charges were dismissed due to fabricated evidence". That's not sneaky or lying by omission, it's the truth from how I read your question.
posted by saeculorum at 2:29 PM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just state the facts, what were the charges YOU PLED TO, what is the disposition.

Example: 2001, Misdemeanor Possession of a Controlled Substance, 7 years probation, completed 2008.

Don't agonize over this. It wasn't selling state secrets to the Russians.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:31 PM on May 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

When you say the charges were "dismissed," do you mean they were expunged and a routine identity check wouldn't turn them up? Because if not, they'll find them, and you'll be fired if you don't tell them straight up what is in the public record.

"On [date], I pled guilty to [misdemeanor]. I completed X months of probation with no violations, and the charges were dismissed."

If they ask anything else (and, depending on what level of clearance you may require, they likely will), emphasize what you have done since then to address the underlying issues (seems like alcohol). I have a fair amount of experience with hiring and security clearance issues; feel free to MeMail me for more specific guidance.
posted by Etrigan at 2:33 PM on May 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

At least you don't have to produce the court papers, which I've had to do. Just explain it simply like Ruthless Bunny or Ertrigan have suggested, as a one-liner.
posted by resurrexit at 2:36 PM on May 30, 2013

Oh, and just FYI in my federal government jobs that didn't require any sort of clearance, everything (i.e., what I plead to--not what was initially charged) showed up on the background check whether I'd successfully completed the terms of the plea deal or not (we call it "deferred adjudication" in Texas--be good long enough and no conviction, screw up and you're convicted). So don't think just because you're an engineer or whatever they're not looking as closely.
posted by resurrexit at 2:38 PM on May 30, 2013

Just a heads up, even following expunction, the records may still appear in some commercial databases that aren't being properly maintained. This article is a bit old, but the issue persists.
posted by Schielisque at 2:50 PM on May 30, 2013

If the charges have been dismissed you don't need to mention them. I have a felony charge that was deferred and dismissed (just like your situation) about 15 years ago that I have never mentioned to an employer and it has not come up in any background checks. Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions.
posted by sacrifix at 2:55 PM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I completely disagree with scarifix's advice, assuming the form asks about charges. The straightforward answer is "answer the question on the form with no more elaboration than necessary." If the instruction is "explain the circumstances of all charges and convictions," then I'd give one-line answers as Ruthless suggests. If they want/need more information, they'll ask.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:11 PM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I, too, have a felony charge on my record, successfully pleaded down to a pair of misdemeanors and then dismissed after the completion of a deferred prosecution agreement (five years of probation + $5k restitution -- ah, teenage hijinks!). I also have a decade-long career in the federal defense industry as well as a security clearance; however, as a government contractor, I only had to go through a NACLC rather than an SSBI.
Only the fact that I successfully completed a deferred prosecution agreement shows up on my permanent record, not the specific charges, whether it was for a felony/misdemeanor, or the fact that there was a plea deal, though I'm sure the level of detail provided by a background check will vary from state to state.

Page 9 of OPM's SF-85P [PDF], which is the form you'll need to complete if your employer wants you to have a Confidential or Secret-level security clearance, seems like a fairly good guideline to use. It outlines the detail you are required to provide regarding any/all arrests, charges, or convictions from the last seven years; it asks only for the month/year, offense, action taken, and the LEA and/or court involved, as well as the state and ZIP code where the offense took place.

My advice is to be completely honest -- not painfully honest, but just plainly honest. Nonchalant, almost. There's no need to go into any detail at all, let alone graphic detail. Just state that you were charged with [felony/misdemeanor] on [date] in [location] but all charges were dismissed following the successful completion of a deferred prosecution agreement. That's the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

You will not be asked to hand over a police report, and you will not be asked to provide any information on or details about what happened during your arrest, so don't worry about that at all. Good luck!
posted by divined by radio at 3:58 PM on May 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

Please, just say the bare facts of what happened, as Etrigan recommends. In my job, when the person says "yeah, here's this charge I plead to when I was 19," we email the supervisor when the background check comes back and say "yeah, he totally did this stupid thing when he was 19 just like he said" and they're fine. The worst thing that happens is that some folks in HR (usually just the two who did the interview and get the background checks, respectively) find out you peed on a wall or whatever.

It's when people are squirrely or creative that things get mucked up.

Somewhat amusingly, in my experience, well-paid and well-educated candidates seem to be at a much bigger risk of having one of these things pop up on their records than any other group; I think it must be because they have confidence and the lower- and middle-level types think they're totally out of luck and don't even apply. You are so not the only "government engineer" applicant with an old set of dismissed charges; if alcohol hijinks in general are considered you're even less alone, thanks to all the folks who did stupid things - which get in the papers, etc. - but didn't get arrested.
posted by SMPA at 5:20 PM on May 30, 2013

When you say the charges were "dismissed," do you mean they were expunged and a routine identity check wouldn't turn them up?

If this is the sort of thing where they talk to all your personal references, you don't want to be trying to hide this -- even if they don't say anything, this will be hanging over your head forever. A lot of charges are only a problem within the last x number of years, you might even be able to find that number of years with a web search.
posted by yohko at 6:12 PM on May 30, 2013

Depending on the state, you can run a background check on yourself and see what's on there, right from the state.

I agree that it is important to note whether they ask for charges or convictions.
posted by gjc at 7:19 PM on May 30, 2013

Reading through your original question, it appears that you were charged with a crime and, after successfully completing a deferred adjudication or probation before judgment, the charge was dismissed.

It sounds like a complete answer to, "Have you been charged? Explain the circumstances" could be, "I was charged with XYZ. The charges were dismissed." (I think divined by radio's advice is also solid.)

Note that deferred adjudication is different from expungement. It depends on the state but when a conviction is expunged, it "goes away". Charges dismissed pursuant to deferred adjudication can (at least in some situations) show up in court records and on background checks.

Hopefully obviously TINLA and YANMC...
posted by QuantumMeruit at 7:57 AM on May 31, 2013

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