The News-Press Editorial
May 1, 2017
We urge Florida Gov. Rick Scott not to sign a very dangerous bill blocking public records access to certain criminal history information of those involved in misdemeanor and felony cases.
Senate bill 118 is another attempt by the Florida Legislature to take away the public’s lawful right to know – because criminal records can be sealed on the condition charges are not filed against a person, if the case is dismissed before trial or the person is acquitted or not found guilty.
Currently, there is a statuary process for expunging criminal history. There also are limitations on what can be expunged from a record. There would be no official process with this bill, filed by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. This bill allows for an automatic administrative seal of a criminal history record and does not put a limit on how many times that record can be sealed, no matter how many times a person faces charges.
The public is entitled to the criminal history based on current Florida law. Expunging a record must be done through a specific process. A blanket seal means that criminal history will never be available, as it is now, on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement website. Concealing information from the public jeopardizes the ability of the media and public to have access to those who may be repeat offenders or getting to the truth of someone who may have been wrongly accused of a crime and exposing why the person may have been wrongly accused.
The fact this bill was amended at the last minute, on the Senate floor and right before the vote, to include the sealing of records, without much challenge or discussion, also is disconcerting. Steube was able to slip in this major change without much discussion or challenge. We wonder if any of the legislators were paying attention. What is equally upsetting is Steube would throw in this change after the bill had breezed through each of the required committees, and House and Senate votes, without much opposition. It passed the Senate 34-0 and the House 118-0.
“The expunging process isn’t great, but we were OK with that,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. “But this is almost reckless public policy.”
“I don’t think it’s an abridgment of the right to free press,” Steube told POLITICO Florida. “What other way do you get people to do what they’re supposed to do without putting some teeth in the legislation?” Steube appears to be blurring the lines between defining what people are supposed to do and what they are entitled to.
What also is discouraging is this could be quite the money maker for the state. The FDLE Statistical Analysis Center estimates “there would be an additional 1,790,049 records that would be eligible to be expunged or sealed. If only 5 percent of those applied, the FDLE says, “it would see an increase of 89,502 applications and court orders a year, resulting in revenue of $6,675,000.”
What Steube is attempting to do in concealing criminal records is unfortunately not uncommon across the country, although for different reasons. Approximately 27 other states have adopted laws that allow for some misdemeanor and felony convictions to be sealed. Many of these laws deal with protecting a person’s ability to find employment or housing. The bigger issue, however, is an employer’s right or a landlord’s right to criminal history. Most companies perform criminal background checks and an employer is at significant risk if there is a criminal past, but it has been concealed by law.
This legislation also challenges the use of arrest booking photographs. If the bill is signed and becomes law July 1, 2018, people will have the right to request in writing that their picture be removed from published sites (those that demand a fee to have a picture removed) within 10 days of receiving the request. If the picture is not removed those entities face a civil penalty of up to $1,000 a day for noncompliance.
The News-Press and USA TODAY NETWORK Florida’s other media organizations, as well as the First Amendment Foundation, are united in opposing this bill, which hides too much from the public and puts our safety and welfare at risk. [READ MORE]