Orlando Sentinel Editorial
May 1, 2017
In a bid to give a break to Floridians who are arrested but not convicted of crimes, the state Legislature has passed a bill that would automatically seal criminal-history records of anyone whose charges are dropped or who is acquitted in a trial.
What could be wrong with that? Plenty — more than enough to call for a veto from Gov. Rick Scott.
Senate Bill 118 is well-intended but misguided. It’s an assault on Floridians’ constitutional right to know.
The premise behind this legislation appears to be that anyone who is arrested and charged but not convicted was wrongly accused. This might be true in many cases. In others, however, a suspect might walk because a witness doesn’t show up to testify. Or the charges are dropped based on a technicality or law enforcement error. Or a jury member holds out against conviction, even in the face of what appears to be overwhelming evidence of guilt.
There is no provision in the bill for discretion or deliberation on which criminal-history records to seal. Nor is there a limit on the number of times records can be sealed for one person, or the kind of circumstances that can be air-brushed out of the public record. The process is automatic, once the opportunity for appeals has expired. So, for example, records would be automatically sealed for Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman, because both were acquitted in trial.
Criminal-history records would be removed from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s website, which is a primary source of information for conducting criminal background checks. The records would still be accessible on county clerks’ websites or at courthouses, but would be exceedingly difficult for someone to locate without knowing exactly where the arrest and charges took place.
Suspects who are found not guilty in a trial could also apply to have their records erased — expunged — which is not an option under current law. The expunction process, at least, is not automatic, and includes limits.
As Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican and sponsor of the House version of the bill, told the Sentinel, SB 118 would make it easier for someone arrested but not convicted to get hired for a job or to rent an apartment. But it would deprive the prospective employer or landlord of information they might want to evaluate for themselves, or at least ask questions about.
The owner of a small business wouldn’t be aware if an applicant for a bookkeeping job had been arrested for embezzlement. The operators of a school wouldn’t know if a teacher’s-aide applicant had been charged with child abuse. An apartment manager might never hear that a prospective tenant had been arrested for arson.
With the ability to conduct a background check, the employer or landlord might still choose to give the person a second chance. But it would be an informed choice.
SB 118 also would help candidates for public office conceal run-ins with the law from journalists and voters. Wouldn’t you want to know if someone seeking a commission seat in your city had been arrested for theft, even if he had beaten the rap?
SB 118 began as a bill to force publishers to take down criminal-history information when provided with proof that the records had been expunged. It was narrowed to focus on requiring companies that post arrest mug shots to remove them without charging a fee. But it was amended late in the legislative process to provide for automatically sealing criminal history records, with little thought to any negative or unintended consequences.
Unfortunately, it’s not out of character for many legislators to show indifference or hostility toward the public’s right to know, even though voters enshrined that right in the Florida Constitution by a lopsided margin of 83-17 in 1992. Since then, legislators have approved hundreds of exceptions to the law.
SB 118 could arrive on Scott’s desk by the end of this week. We urge him to get his veto pen ready. [READ MORE]