Sunday, April 25, 2010

When innocent verdicts still plague citizens

The following editorial was published in the Bradenton (FL) Herald on April 23, 2010.

Florida state law unjustly victimizes some criminal defendants by not allowing those found innocent to have their legal records expunged for at least a decade.

Even after 10 years, statutes require citizens to petition the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Then citizens found not guilty must survive background checks and meet certain criteria. Next, a judge must approve the expunge request.

Citizens can have case documents sealed after a not-guilty verdict, but arrest records remain. The negative ramifications can follow a person for years if not a lifetime. When potential employers perform a background check, an arrest record will show up — tainting that person’s opportunities. While the courts must presume innocence, employers can look askance at that information and reject a job prospect without citing the reason.

There are many good reasons to keep court records from being purged. Some defendants acquitted by juries are not innocent. Some might escape conviction on a legal technicality even though the evidence supports the prosecution. Law enforcement needs that background information to evaluate possible trends that might be valuable to future investigations.

Statutes do not allow records to be expunged by people with any criminal convictions, and while that sounds reasonable it is also unfair under certain circumstances. A person accused of murder but then discovered to have been misidentified as the case progressed cannot have the dropped charge expunged if his record holds any conviction, even for driving with a suspended license. That scenario played out in real life here with a client of Bradenton defense attorney Greg Hagopian. “It seems unfair,” Hagopian told Herald reporter Robert Napper for an article published earlier this month.
Unfair indeed. That clearly innocent citizen will face a lifetime of diminished prospects. Who would hire someone with a murder charge on their record?

This is a prime example that state law should hold exceptions to the tight restrictions on expunging criminal records. Citizens should not be forced to face the presumption of guilt after a jury finds them innocent.

Legislation that addresses these issues remains bottled up in Senate and House committees. Current law allows a person only one opportunity to expunge a record in their lifetime, and the House bill would expand that to two. The Senate bill allows expunction after a not-guilty jury verdict. Both measures should be enacted into law.

We urge lawmakers to pass these bills in the remaining days of the session.

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