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Expungement bill goes to full Senate

A Senate committee on Wednesday approved a bill to close some of the gaping loopholes in a state law that has allowed criminal offenders to hide their pasts from the public.

The action clears the way for a vote by the full Senate as early as next week, said one of the bill's sponsors, state Sen. John Grant of Tampa.

An even stronger proposal is working its way through the House. Grant said he plans to offer the House version on the Senate floor.

The state law, first passed in 1974, was intended to allow first-time offenders to seal their arrest records, provided a judge had not imposed a formal finding of guilt. Judges often withhold findings of guilt for first-time offenders.

But in a series of articles, the St. Petersburg Times has shown that the law has allowed people who have been sentenced for repeated serious offenses to seal their records from public view. The law also allowed a sex offender to get a job as a teacher. Judges in Tampa have sealed cases for friends and relatives. People with arrest records for murder and rape have been allowed to say the arrests never happened.

The Senate bill would give the state Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) more authority to review and reject requests for sealing or destruction of criminal records, known as expungement. Currently, that's left up to state prosecutors.

The House version would go further, prohibiting sealing or destruction of records involving any charges of sexual battery, sex offenses against children, fraud, drug trafficking or public corruption. The bill also would allow FDLE to keep "archival copies" of arrest records so an applicant for a record-sealing who lies can be caught more easily.

The bill originally faced trouble in the House. But the Times series apparently changed some lawmakers' minds, Grant said.

"Frankly, it's because of the crusading effort of the St. Petersburg Times," Grant said.

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