Monday, February 19, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Gov. Rick Scott should veto bill that seals millions of criminal records

Here's a case where legislation starts sensibly and morphs into something worse, good intentions cannot overcome terrible consequences and unanimous votes mean nothing. The Florida Legislature quietly voted to automatically seal millions of criminal history records for anyone whose charges are dropped or who is found not guilty at trial. This is a sweeping assault on public records and the public's constitutional right to know, and Gov. Rick Scott should veto it.

This legislation, SB 118, cruised along for weeks with a narrow focus. It required publishers of arrest booking photographs to remove them upon request if they solicited or accepted payments to remove the photos. It also allowed most anyone found not guilty at trial to apply to have their criminal record expunged, an expansion of the law that now allows only those whose charges are dropped or dismissed before trial to apply. Fine.

Then the legislation exploded into something entirely different, and nobody noticed. Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, added one new paragraph last month shortly before the Senate unanimously approved his bill. That paragraph would require that Florida automatically seal all criminal history records of a minor or an adult arrested for a misdemeanor or felony when the prosecutor does not file charges, the charges are dismissed before trial, or the person is found not guilty at trial and all appeals are exhausted. There is no individual review of the record, no discretion, no exceptions and no limits on how many times the same person could have records sealed. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement estimates more than 2.7 million criminal history records would be subject to such an administrative sealing. That's 2.7 million public files wiped out.

This is not just a serious concern for the media. This should alarm anyone who runs a business, considers a new venture with someone they don't know well, hires a landscaper at home or seeks a babysitter for their children. Shouldn't the business owner know whether the person they may hire was charged with theft or fraud but not convicted? Shouldn't the homeowner know that their landscaper or roofer was accused of cheating customers but found not guilty? Shouldn't the parent know the potential babysitter was accused of child abuse, but the charges were dropped because a witness would not testify?

There are plenty of reasons people accused of crimes wind up having the charges dropped or being found not guilty in court. Witnesses disappear or don't cooperate. A paper trail offers smoke but no fire. Investigations are botched. Just because there is not a conviction does not mean the public should be kept in the dark and records should be automatically sealed forever.

Steube and other supporters of keeping all of these criminal records secret say they are trying to help people who have been accused but not found guilty of a crime to get jobs. Individuals already can seek to have their records sealed or expunged after a manual review. His legislation would apply to anyone and create an automated, automatic process. And it advanced only after FDLE said it would cost $1.8 million this year to implement unless he could wait a year for a new computerized criminal history system to start operating. So Steube changed the effective date to July 2018.

Apparently, the same criminal records FDLE would seal would remain publicly available at county courthouses. But few businesses or residents have time to go to the courthouse, and there is always the possibility the person was charged with a crime in a different county. There also is a question whether this provision would become law even if the governor signs the legislation, because it is oddly tied to another bill that did not pass. But it's not worth the risk to allow this to slide.

This legislation is far too broad. It's bad for business and for personal safety. The need to keep these criminal records public far exceeds personal privacy concerns, and the governor should veto this legislation.

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