The Ledger Editorial
May 2, 2017
For the past few weeks, it has become evident that the Florida Legislature can’t agree on much. Democrats fight with Republicans, Republicans fight with Republicans, the House fights with the Senate, lawmakers fight with the governor.
Yet there is one thing all of them can agree on — undermining the public’s right to information.
Consider Senate Bill 118 as an example. It has unanimously passed both chambers and awaits Gov. Rick Scott’s signature. For the sake of open government, we urge the governor to veto this bad bill.
Weighed in its best light, SB 118 seems an attempt to help people who are accused of crimes and found not guilty or whose charges are dismissed prior to a trial to regain their reputation following any bad publicity that likely would result from an arrest.
SB 118 seeks to do that two ways. First, it mandates that “publishers” who make public such a defendant’s mugshot and then charge a fee for removing it from a website, for example, to take it down upon request from the defendant. Failure to do so within 10 days of the request could provoke a court injunction and a $1,000 a day fine.
Profiting off people who are arrested by charging them to remove mugshots from websites is a sleazy racket. Legitimate news organizations do not operate that way.
Still, this feature of SB 118 was troubling because of the constitutional issue. The media, per se, has become so splintered that almost anyone can be a “publisher.” Those who stake such a claim can, when someone is arrested, distribute an arrest report and related information, including a mugshot, because they are public records. The fact that the case was later dropped, or that the defendant was ultimately acquitted, does not make the original publication inaccurate. Thus, the publisher has a First Amendment right to proceed.
Limiting the bill to only those who charge fees to retract mugshots might address some concerns.
Yet the second, more worrisome feature of SB 118, arising from an amendment that was recently slipped in, relates to understanding someone’s past criminal behavior.
The bill would mandate that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement automatically and administratively seal the criminal history of anyone who is arrested and then found not guilty at trial or who, before trial, has his or her case dropped by prosecutors or dismissed by a judge.
That again seems to be an attempt to rehabilitate someone’s reputation, but it also represents a radical departure from current practice.
As it stands, a defendant whose case does not end in a conviction can petition the court to have the record in that particular case expunged. If granted, the court clerk and any law enforcement agency that has documents related to the case must, as a Florida House staff analysis of SB 118 put it, “obliterate” them. The FDLE maintains a master file, but it remains confidential. The rest of the defendant’s entire criminal history, however, remains intact and publicly available.
SB 118 changes that by forcing FDLE to seal all such records for good. The effect could be profound.
Such a shift would not affect just the news media that attempt to explain the background of a suspect. It also could affect employers, landlords, financial institutions, parents concerned about who their child dates or associates with — in other words, anyone who might have an interest in learning whom they are dealing with. This is not a trifling matter. The Fort Myers News Press noted in an editorial Monday that upward of 1.8 million Floridians — or 9 percent of the state’s population — could be eligible to have their records expunged if Gov. Scott signs SB 118.
It sounds trite but the easiest way to avoid this situation is to avoid becoming entangled with the police in the first place.
We reiterate our call urging the governor to reject this bill. Whatever redeeming quality it might have in helping some folks repair their reputations is significantly overshadowed by its undercutting the public’s access to information. [READ MORE]