If governor signs, 2.7 million criminal records vanish from public view

More than 2.7 million criminal records will be sealed and the arrest records of hundreds of thousands of people will be concealed under a bill heading to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

An open records advocacy group is sounding the alarm and calling for Scott to veto the bill, warning it could hide the backgrounds of dangerous people.

The bill, if signed, would automatically administratively seal court records of nearly anyone who is found not guilty or is acquitted during a trial or has the charges dropped or dismissed. Charging documents could still be obtained from the courthouse where the charges were filed, but the charges won’t show up in a background check through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican who sponsored the bill, said the bill will remove a stigma that follows people who were never convicted by the court system.

“People that went to trial or had a judgment of acquittal by a judge still have all of this on their record, and it’s still hard for them to get a job,” Steube said. “These people want to be contributors to society, and we’re not giving them the opportunity to do it.”

The House and Senate unanimously passed the bill with little fanfare. But it was drastically altered in the final stages to increase its scope in ways that concern the First Amendment Foundation, a group that advocates for transparency in government.

Early versions of the bill allowed for people acquitted or found not guilty to request the charges be expunged by a court, removing them from their record. Currently, a person can petition for expunction if the charges were dropped or dismissed.

However, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which processes applications for expunction, cautioned that the expansion of eligibility for expunction would lead to tens of thousands of additional requests. FDLE officials said they don’t have enough personnel to handle the workload.

The agency would need 32 full-time employees at a cost of nearly $2 million a year and more office space, the agency said in a bill analysis.

FDLE instead suggested the Legislature set up a process to automatically administratively seal misdemeanor and felony records in nearly all cases when charges are dropped or dismissed or if the defendant is acquitted or found not guilty. Under that scenario, there would be almost no need for expunction though some people may still seek the formal removal of the charges from their record.

The Legislature agreed to the change and both chambers passed the bill on April 28. The FDLE analysis estimated 2.7 million criminal records will be immediately sealed, meaning they won’t show up on background checks conducted on FDLE’s website.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said the shift would be drastic and could create public safety concerns.

“There’s never any consideration of what led to that not guilty verdict,” Petersen said. “Insufficient evidence, the witness didn’t appear, a rape victim didn’t want to testify.

“You can have someone tried for lewd and lascivious behavior but the witness wouldn’t testify,” she added. “That can happen two, three, four, five times and when I’m going to hire a babysitter there’s no mention of it on a background check.”

Scott spokeswoman Kerri Wyland said the governor will review the bill once it reaches his desk.

Republished from the First Amendment Foundation, this editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald and is written by Steve Contorno.

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