May 9, 2017
Every session of the Legislature results in efforts to further erode the rights of Floridians to the records and meetings of their government. But few assaults have been more egregious and misdirected than CS/SB 118.
The approved bill would require the state to automatically seal the records of any adult or juvenile charged with a misdemeanor or felony — if prosecutors don’t pursue the charges, or if the defendant is acquitted or found not guilty in court.
We recognize that too many people assume the worst — guilt — if someone is arrested for an alleged crime. We also acknowledge that relationships and careers are sometimes ruined by media reports of unproven allegations.
Florida and other states have processes that allow people charged with crimes to seek court review and have their criminal-history records sealed. In fact, according to a First Amendment Foundation analysis, the bill in question originally and specifically allowed for people to apply for expunction in the absence of a conviction.
But the bill, whose chief sponsor was Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, was amended on the third reading to require such records to be automatically sealed by a state administrative agency. As FAF noted, the late and significant amendment prevented an analysis by the Legislature’s staff and, more important, public review and input.
The foundation, which strives to protect public access to records and meetings, has urged Gov. Rick Scott to veto the bill. We do the same.
Seeking to have one’s records expunged is cumbersome, but the criteria in state law for granting a request provide reasonable safeguards protecting the public’s right to know.
For instance, would parents of children not want to have access to records that show a neighbor had been repeatedly charged with — but not convicted of — child abuse?
Would employers not want to have access to records to know that a prospective employee had been charged with — but not convicted of — stealing from employers or driving a company car while intoxicated?
Would citizens not want to have access to records to learn whether a law-enforcement agency or state attorney’s office dropped charges against a powerful local or state politician?
In the internet age, if the incidents that led to the creation of criminal-history documents had been reported by media outlets or posted on Facebook, an electronic trail might remain. But why take unnecessary risks by delegating automatic expunction to the government bureaucracy?
It’s important to note that the First Amendment Foundation did not oppose Steube’s bill in its early versions. But the FAF rightly referred to the switch to automatic expunction as a “dramatic shift in public policy.”
If the governor allows this bill to become law, Floridians would automatically lose the right to access such records once they are expunged.
The sealing of those records would do more than impact journalists and block citizen access to records. It would undermine public safety by keeping the parents of children, caretakers of the elderly, employers and others in the dark about information to which they have long been entitled. [READ MORE]