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“The system works well if everyone stays compliant,” Cool says.

But when the system breaks down, it does so spectacularly.

Dennis Teague was disappointed when he was rejected for a job at the Wisconsin state fair. He was horrified to learn why: A background check showed a 13-page rap sheet loaded with gun and drug crimes and lengthy prison lockups. But it wasn’t his record. A cousin had apparently given Teague’s name as his own during an arrest.

What galled Teague was that the police knew the cousin’s true identity. It was even written on the background check. Yet below Teague’s name, there was an unmistakable message, in bold letters: “Convicted Felon.”

Teague sued Wisconsin’s Department of Justice, which furnished the data and prepared the report. He blamed a faulty algorithm that the state uses to match people to crimes in its electronic database of criminal records. The state says it was appropriate to include the cousin’s record, because that kind of information is useful to employers the same way it is useful to law enforcement.

Teague argued that the computers should have been programmed to keep the records separate.

“I feel powerless,” he says. “I feel like I have the worst luck ever. It’s basically like I’m being punished for living right.”

One of Teague’s lawyers, Jeff Myer of Legal Action of Wisconsin, an advocacy law firm for poorer clients, says the state is protecting the sale of its lucrative databases.

“It’s a big moneymaker, and that’s what it’s all about,” Myer says. “The convenience of online information is so seductive that the record-keepers have stopped thinking about its inaccuracy. As valuable as I find public information that’s available over the Internet, I don’t think people have a full appreciation of the dark side.”

In court papers, Wisconsin defended its inclusion of Teague’s name in its database because his cousin has used it as an alias.

“We’ve already refuted Mr. Teague’s claims in our court documents,” said Dana Brueck, a spokeswoman for Wisconsin’s Department of Justice. “We’re not going to quibble with him in the press.”

A Wisconsin state judge plans to issue his decision in Teague’s case by March 11.

The number of people pulling physical court files for background checks is shrinking as more courts put information online. With fewer people to control quality, accuracy suffers.

Some states are pushing ahead with electronic records programs anyway. Arizona says it hasn’t had problems with companies failing to implement updates.

Others are more cautious. New Mexico had considered selling its data in bulk but decided against it because officials felt they didn’t have an effective way to enforce updates.

Story Continues →