As a rule, most landlords want to screen out tenants with criminal records, particularly convictions for violent crimes or crimes against children. Checking a prospective tenant’s credit report is one way to find out about a person’s criminal history. Self-reporting is another: Rental applications typically ask whether the prospective tenant has ever been convicted of a crime, and, if so, to provide details. Running an investigative report, a background report about a person’s character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living, is one possibility, but less common.
“Megan’s Law” may be able to assist landlords in confirming that some of the information provided in the rental application and revealed in the credit report is complete and correct. Named after a young girl who was killed by a convicted child molester who lived in her neighborhood, this 1996 federal crime prevention law charged the FBI with keeping a nationwide database of persons convicted of sexual offenses against minors and violent sexual offenses against anyone. (42 U.S. Code §§ 14701 and following.)
How Megan’s Law Works
Every state has its own version of Megan’s Law. These laws typically require certain convicted sexual offenders to register with local law enforcement officials, who keep a database on their whereabouts. Unfortunately, the states are not consistent when it comes to using and distributing the database information. Notification procedures and the public’s access rights vary widely:
- Widespread notification/easy access. A few states are “wide open”—they permit local law enforcement to automatically notify neighbors of the presence of sexual offenders on the database, by way of either letters, flyers, or notices published in local newspapers. Alternately, some states make the information available to anyone who chooses to access the database.
- Selected notification/limited access. Other states take a more restrictive approach, allowing law enforcement to release the information only if they deem it necessary. Or, states permit public access only to persons who demonstrate a legitimate need to know the names of convicted sexual offenders.
- Restricted notification/narrow access. Finally, many states are quite restrictive, permitting notification only to certain individuals or officials, and allowing access only to them.
Also, in some states, it’s not a matter of whether it’s a good idea to check a Megan’s Law database. Landlords in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New Jersey cannot use information derived from a Megan’s Law database to discriminate when choosing tenants. These laws provide for stiff penalties if you do.
Where to Find Your State's Megan's Law
For information on your state’s Megan’s Law and restrictions on landlords’ use of information derived from a Megan’s Law database, contact your local law enforcement agency. To find out how to access your state’s sex offender registry, you can also contact the Parents for Megan’s Law (PFML) Hotline at 888-ASK-PFML or check the PMFL website.
The Limitations of Megan’s Law Searching
The early promise of Megan’s Law databases was ambitious. Landlords expected that they could quickly find accurate information on any person, and freely use it to reject an applicant with an unsavory past. Several years’ experience with the databases, and legal challenges to their use, have resulted in landlords’ taking a much more cautious approach to running a Megan’s Law search. Among other issues, Megan’s Law databases are notoriously inaccurate, the result of incomplete or old data or entries that mistake one person for another.
Useful Resource for Screening Tenants
Check out Every Landlord’s Guide to Finding Great Tenants for detailed advice on checking applicants’ criminal backgrounds.