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Conference agrees sealing law needs to be changed

It's not certain what will happen to a law that allows Florida criminals to hide their pasts. But this much is clear: The law at least will be altered, if not scrapped.

At a meeting in Tallahassee on Monday, representatives of several law enforcement agencies and criminal defense lawyers gathered to decide what to do about Florida's sealing and expunction statute.

The meeting was organized by state Sen. John Grant of Tampa and Sen. Quillian Yancey of Lakeland, chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"Sen. Yancey and I can guarantee you that a bill will be introduced and it will be heard in our committee and it will be our top priority to get something workable out of the Legislature next year," Grant told the group.

"This law is a disaster. It's a catastrophe. It's a miscarriage of justice. It's a danger to society and it has got to be corrected."

Grant said he planned to introduce a bill as soon as next week to focus the attention of other legislators and the public on problems with the statute. Abuses and flaws in the law were the subject of a series published earlier this year in the St. Petersburg Times.

How the law will be corrected will be decided through a series of meetings between the senators and representatives of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), the state Attorney General's Office, the Florida Bar, prosecutors and defense lawyers.

The 30 people who attended Monday's meeting generally agreed that the statute must at least be rewritten to more clearly explain who is eligible for the sealing or expunction of a criminal arrest.

A sealed arrest hides the person's record from employers and the public. An expunction leads to the actual destruction of arrest records, hiding it from police and prosecutors.

Arthur I. "Buddy" Jacobs, an attorney for the Florida Prosecuting Attorney's Association, said his group wants to abolish the statute.

"We kind of come from the position of "why do we need this?,'

" Jacobs said. "When someone goes through bankruptcy, that is always there as an indicator that the person had financial trouble. If in the commercial area of our lives we always have to maintain a record, why not in the more serious criminal area?"

Thomas Powell, a Tallahassee defense attorney representing the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, agreed only that the statute is cumbersome and needs to be written more clearly. Powell and representatives of the state's public defenders said that the intent of the law, to give a youthful offender a second chance, should remain part of the new statute.

"We would like to preserve the availability of this remedy," said Richard Parker, public defender in Alachua County. "I think it serves a valid and useful purpose."

Attorneys for the FDLE proposed a bill that will serve as a framework for future changes. It would make two changes.

The first would require anyone seeking an expunction to first have his arrest record sealed, then wait 10 years before becoming eligible for expunction. Currently, a person who is not formally charged by prosecutors is immediately eligible for expunction.

The second change would allow the FDLE to stop any sealing it believes improper. Currently, the FDLE is required to seal criminal records even if it believe it's wrong.

Staff members from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee suggested several other changes. They want a five- or 10-year waiting period after a case is resolved before it can be sealed. Another proposed change would forbid the sealing or expunction of serious felonies or crimes involving government corruption.

Willis Booth, the outspoken director of Florida's Police Chiefs Association, said that he considers the current law "a mockery of justice."

Booth speculated that several legislators recently charged with failing to report trips paid for by lobbyists would likely take advantage of the current statute before the Legislature has a chance to amend it next year.

"If the government is going to perpetuate a lie with the statutes, then maybe that's the reason we've got so many legislators in trouble right now," Booth said.

"And these fellows are probably going to come in to court and say that "I'm a first offender' and they're going to get the thing expunged."