By: Jake Stofan; Capitol News Service
June 6, 2017
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) – 2.7 million criminal records in Florida could soon be sealed to the public under legislation awaiting action from Governor Rick Scott.
Many defense attorneys support the legislation, while public records advocates are concerned the bill goes too far.
In the U.S., someone who is accused of a crime is considered innocent until proven guilty. But in the age of the Internet, many people have found themselves presumed guilty after being arrested.
That’s because websites that publish mugshots often charge someone who has been arrested to remove their picture, even after they have been found not guilty.
Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney Lee Meadows says, “If they pay one, how many are they going to continue to have to pay to have their picture off?”
Originally, the bill sought to prevent websites from charging to remove arrest photos.
But the legislation transformed into an automatic, sweeping closure of arrest records for people found innocent of a crime.
Open government activists say acquittal doesn’t mean “not guilty”.
Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation says, “Many people who are acquitted, or charges are dropped, is because the witness refuses to testify.”
Attorney General Pam Bondi says the sealing of those records could be detrimental to future cases.
“Especially the sex offenders, because we all know how difficult it is to convict a sex offender,” says Bondi.
Public records advocates also fear that sealing the records could make it difficult for prospective employers to know who they are hiring.
“You go to the FDLE background check page, that person won’t be listed,” says Petersen.
Jacksonville Trial Lawyer Bill Sheppard argues the case that with the accessibility and permanence of the Internet, nothing is ever actually sealed.
“A month later somebody will send you a note that says, ‘for $400 more we’ll really get it sealed’, but it’s in the public domain.”
Charging files of those found not guilty would still be accessible through county courthouses, but someone would need to know the county in which the person was charged.
Governor Rick Scott has until June 20 to sign the bill into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.