TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed into law a public records bill that could possibly result in the sealing of millions of criminal history records.
Scott, in his letter announcing his decision to sign the bill (SB 118) asserted that criminal records will remain open to the public because of the way the bill was worded. He said the provision was dependent on another bill that did not pass so "this section of the bill will not take effect."
Open government advocates who called for a veto said Scott's interpretation is possible but that it's not clear-cut.
"It's surprising and disappointing," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. "I think it's worthy of a veto."
The measure pushed by Sen. Greg Steube, a Bradenton Republican, dealt initially with creating a way for people to have their arrest mugshots removed from websites.
But the bill was changed so that records are sealed once the opportunity for appeals has expired. The bill requires the automatic sealing of arrest records or records of an "incident of alleged criminal activity" if a prosecutor or state attorney declines to file charges, all charges were dismissed before trial or the person charged was acquitted or found not guilty.
The legislation could require nearly 3 million criminal records to be sealed, according to an estimate from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The First Amendment Foundation said the legislation could apply to high-profile cases such as those of Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman, both of whom were acquitted.
Attorney General Pam Bondi last month raised questions about the legislation, saying it's important in sex offender cases to know if someone has been charged previously.
Kylie Mason, a spokeswoman for Bondi's office, said Friday that "it is our understanding that arrest records involving violent offenders and sexual predators will remain public, and if that is the case, we are pleased."
Steube defended the bill in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, saying that "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. These people want to be contributors to society, and we're not giving them the opportunity to do it."