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Bill to seal millions of criminal records sparks safety, public access concerns

Background checks are a fact of life for anyone seeking a job, an apartment, even -- in some cases -- a girlfriend.

Background checks are a fact of life for anyone seeking a job, an apartment, even -- in some cases -- a girlfriend.

But a bill headed to Gov. Rick Scott would remove millions of records from the statewide database used to conduct background checks. The move would effectively hide arrest records from landlords, school systems, even the media.

Senate Bill 118, if signed, will automatically seal the records of anyone found not guilty of a crime, or who had their charges dropped. County courthouses would still have the charging documents on file, but they would not show up on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement database. Anyone looking for records would need to know in which county a person was charged, or search each of the state’s 67 counties individually.

Sen. Greg Steube, the Sarasota Republican who sponsored the bill, says it’s designed to allow people who’ve been found not guilty of a crime to move on with their lives.

“We're talking about people who’ve gone through the process and been found not guilty,” he told First Coast News. “So they don’t have to be ‘found guilty’ the rest of their life.”

The bill is part of the so-called second chance movement, designed to lessen the lifelong stigma a criminal charge can carry. The bill also includes penalties for mugshot websites that refuse to remove booking photos when asked.

But it has raised concerns among public records advocates and some in the law enforcement community. Two cases cited by both are among the most high-profile in state history: George Zimmerman and Casey Anthony. Under SB 118, neither would show up in the statewide database. They are among an estimated 2.7 million criminal records that would essentially vanish from view.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi spoke out against the bill last week, saying she was particularly concerned about records involving crimes against children.

“What concerns me about this — just as a career prosecutor: sex offenders,” Bondi told reporters. “I think some of those cases are very important, to be able to know about the past and the history. That does concern me.”

Some crimes – like sex crimes or those accusations of domestic violence -- are considered harder to prosecute, and can result in an acquittal because of issues like reluctant witnesses. Crimes against the elderly or disabled are also likelier to result in acquittal.

“We all know how difficult it is to convict a sex offender,” Bondi told reporters, “and if they have a case again in the future, I think it’s important for people to be able to know about that.”

Steube said such concerns should have been raised before the bill passed – unanimously -- through both the House and the Senate. “This bill has been around for I think three years, and not one single prosecutor or one single person in law enforcement came to me and said this is an issue,” he says. “And now we’re going to make a comment about its veracity?”

But Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, notes that bill changed substantially at its final hearing. As originally drafted, it merely expanded the state’s expunction statute – a process in which expungement applications are reviewed and ruled upon by FDLE and a judge.

The bill was amended after FDLE said processing the additional applications would cost millions and require 32 additional employees. The amended version simply seals the records automatically, without review. It also eliminates restrictions that currently prohibit certain charges from being placed under seal – including allegations of domestic violence, and crimes against children, the elderly and the disabled.

“You could have a serial child molester, for example, who’s been tried and acquitted five times and there’s not a record of their charges on the FDLE website,” says Petersen. “This is as much a public records issue a transparency issue as it is a public safety issue.”

But Ann Finnell, a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney says the bill’s good intentions outweigh concerns.

“A lot of people get arrested for things they don’t do,” Finnell says. “Fundamental fairness should offer some avenue for the person to have that arrest wiped out or sealed or expunged to keep the public from knowing about it. I don’t see any reason for the public to know.”

Finnell, who was part of the Casey Anthony defense team, says high-profile cases like that tend to distort the discussion. “The Casey Anthonys are so rare and so few and far between that we shouldn’t gut what is otherwise a really good bill.”

Scott has not yet received the bill. Once he does, he has 15 days to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. Steube said the concerns raised since the bill’s passage have not diminished his desire to see it become law.

“If something that arises that is an issue, then in eight months we can fix it,” he says. “If all these hypotheticals become an issue, then we can address it in next legislative session.”

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