Editor's Note

The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Single Best Use of FOIA I Have Seen This Holiday Season

Every once in a while, there comes an act of such singular genius that you must simply step aside and let it tell itself...courtesy of the Dallas Morning News:

Who's been naughty and is likely to end up with a stocking full of coal?

It might just be Santa Claus or Kris Kringle.

Public records show that nationally, someone named Santa Claus has been convicted at least a dozen times during the past decade.

Mr. Claus' indiscretions include a 1996 arrest for driving while intoxicated in Jefferson County, Texas.

And Mr. Kringle has a lengthy criminal record in Oregon.

Even the Christmas crew appears to have had some troubles: Rudolph Reindeer violated a restraining order in 2004.

But don't plug the chimney and forgo the cookies and milk just yet.

Skilled backgrounders know that you can't just put someone on the naughty list based on a name. Many people have the same name, but other information would distinguish them – such as their date of birth or home address.

Unless Santa has a summer home in Beaumont, it's unlikely the Texas drunken driver with the same name is the Santa Claus. None had an address at the actual North Pole, according to public records. But several residents of North Pole, Alaska, have criminal records.

And yes, in Virginia there is a Santa Claus. In fact, there are at least four – two of whom are women. But no public records showed criminal records for those Clauses.

Birth dates also can distinguish individuals in background checks. All of the Clauses and Kringles with criminal records were born in the 1900s. It has been published widely that the Santa Claus was around before that.

While this topic may seem like a frivolous excuse for a writer to combine public records and the holiday season, it's not all fun and games.

Backgrounding Santa is not unusual. Companies frequently run background checks on the individuals they hire to stand in for the famous North Pole gift-giver, particularly in cases where they interact with children.

Police in some areas of England this year asked organizations that employ "Father Christmas, elves and other festive characters" to run background checks, according to British news reports.

The same techniques I used to check on Mr. Claus can be used to check up on other people in your life.

Several online sites claim they can background someone for a fee, but many of those services are pricey. Government databases often are less expensive.

The Texas Department of Public Safety Web site provides access to a database of criminal conviction records. For a fee, you can search by a person's name.

If your search turns up no records, you're not necessarily in the clear; the records are incomplete because the agency relies on whatever information the counties provide. According to DPS, for example, Dallas County reported 78 percent of its 2004 criminal conviction records to the state, which is a marked improvement from just a few years ago. Denton County did better by reporting 82 percent of its records.

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