Disposition vs. Sentencing 

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Posted by: David Garcia January 13, 2024

It’s common sense to want to find out if your potential new hire has a conviction for a criminal offense. However, often, it’s not as black and white as innocent or guilty.

Criminal activity in the US results in several possible outcomes, not all leading to a prison sentence or fine, but which may still be relevant to whether you should hire someone for a particular job.

A criminal background check can give rise to terms that don’t make much sense, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with them before you hire. This knowledge helps judge an applicant and avoids a potentially bad choice of candidate.

What Does Disposition Mean in Legal Terms?

Disposition results from a misdemeanor or crime, which means the perpetrator is arrested and prosecuted. This process produces several possible outcomes relevant to the recruitment process.


If a defendant – the person in Court and accused of a crime – is acquitted, they are found not guilty by the Court in a trial. There is no punishment or criminal record.

Dropped Charges

The prosecutor decides not to take the case forward usually because the evidence isn’t strong enough or new evidence comes to light which weakens the prosecution’s case. 

Charges Dismissed

The charges are dismissed either by the Court or the prosecutor who decides to terminate the case. The prosecutor has this discretion if they believe the circumstances and facts support dismissal. 

A judge can also dismiss a case if they can find no legal basis for the charge or if the defendant’s rights have been subject to violation.


Pending means that the charges are still under investigation, nothing has been filed officially, and the prosecutor is still reviewing the case.

Deferred Prosecution

Deferred prosecution is an agreement between the prosecutor and a defendant based on the defendant admitting guilt. 

The charges will be dismissed if the defendant fulfills certain conditions like community service, probation, or restitution to victims. 

If a non-serious crime, deferred prosecution can be a formal or informal agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant.


Sealed means that the records are stored away from public access; this might be some data, documents, or all the records.


Expunged means that some or all the information associated with a criminal case is deleted as if the incident never occurred.

What Is Meant by Sentencing?

A sentence is imposed if someone is found guilty of a criminal offense. There are different types of sentences the Court can impose.

The most common type of sentence is a determinate sentence, which refers to a fixed term of imprisonment that a parole board or other agency cannot alter. 

Compare this with an indeterminate sentence that contains a range of imprisonment lengths, leaving the release date open.

A suspended sentence means the Court postpones the potential punishment because the defendant is undergoing a probation period or treatment program. 

An intermittent sentence is when the defendant enjoys periods away from prison to attend work or education.

Does a Disposition Show Up on a Background Check?

background check looks at public and private records held by individuals and organizations about an individual.

Background checks can search data from local courts and law enforcement agencies and reveal if a job applicant has committed a crime in a state or country where they don’t currently live. 

A background check will reveal a disposition, the date and type of offense, and the details of any sentence imposed. 

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), a non-conviction in a criminal case can appear on a background check for up to seven years, providing potentially useful information to an employer.

Understanding the criminal background of a potential employee is vital to the hiring process. Dispositions provide a critical context for evaluating a past criminal activity and the likely effect this has on a candidate’s suitability. 

Because of the so-called ‘Ban the Box’ legislation, which operates in most US states, it is illegal to have a tick box on a job application that asks candidates about any previous criminal history, making background checks even more vital.

However, employers should also be aware that Ban the Box laws can restrict the information when conducting a criminal background check. Nine US states already limit felony or misdemeanor convictions to a reporting period of seven years.

All employers should consider criminal background checks at the recruitment stage to make a full risk assessment, even if some restrictions apply and limit how far back the search goes.

What Disposition Means on a Criminal Background Check

Dispositions on a criminal background check cover a range of scenarios that may be relevant to an employer. Even if there is no conviction, the status or outcome of an illegal activity is still important.

A disposition like an acquittal, case dismissed, or charges dropped may have no real impact on a hiring decision. However, a criminal conviction or more than one conviction can increase the risk associated with hiring that person exponentially. 

While some information is undoubtedly better than none at all, employers must remember that some records won’t go beyond a seven-year search, so there could be criminal data they can’t see.

Also, employers must consider how they use criminal history when making employment decisions. 

It’s essential that an employer can demonstrate a process of evaluation that directly relates that candidate’s criminal history to the risks and responsibilities of a particular job so a rejection has a sound basis.

A disposition found on a criminal background check may have no real relevance to the role in question. Plus, there could be a long period of time that has elapsed since that criminal activity, so it could be no longer pertinent.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that employers cannot use an applicant’s criminal history in a prejudicial manner.

Employers must understand the different terminology used on a disposition and what it means to avoid a negative employment decision for the wrong reason. 

Perhaps more important to remember: recruitment is not the time for a ‘one size fits all’ policy, which treats every candidate with criminal activity on a background check as a definite rejection and runs the risk of breaking the law. You’ll want to do your research.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Disposition the Same as Conviction?

Disposition is different from conviction. Conviction means you have either pleaded guilty or been found guilty by the Court. 

Disposition is the current status of an arrest or prosecution with a whole spectrum of different possibilities, including pending, deferred prosecution, dropped charges, dismissal, or acquittal.

Is Disposition the Same as Judgement?

Disposition is the final outcome in a case in a criminal Court, so it includes the judgment. 

However, a disposition can also detail many other statuses of a criminal arrest or prosecution, including a result that did not lead to a judgment, such as pending or dropped charges. 

Final Thoughts

Criminal background checks are one of the most common pre-hire employer investigations. However, employers need to take care that they understand the meaning and implications of data produced on an applicant’s record.

The terminology can be confusing, and the data must be interpreted correctly to produce a correct and legal hiring decision.

ScoutLogic offers a full suite of pre-employment services, including criminal background checks, to help employers make the best recruitment decisions for their business. Reach out today!

Note: The information provided in this article is intended for general guidance and informational purposes only. It is not legal advice. Laws and regulations regarding criminal background checks and employment practices vary by jurisdiction and are subject to change. We strongly recommend consulting with a qualified legal professional to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and to receive advice tailored to your specific situation.

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