NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · ALABAMA · Secret Courts · March 15, 2006
Courts may not expunge criminal records
March 15, 2006 · A state court’s practice of removing criminal files from the public record to prevent acquitted defendants from being harmed is unlawful and impairs the public’s right to a transparent judicial system, the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled Friday. The unanimous decision forces open hundreds of expunged state court records that, to the public, currently do not exist.
Mobile, Ala., Municipal Court Judge James H. Lackey and Administrator Pete Pedersen failed to prove that laws allowing criminal justice agencies to modify records authorize courts to delete entire criminal files, a nine-judge appellate panel ruled.
“Here, the existence of, and thus all the information contained in, entire files on criminal defendants have been hidden from the public,” Judge Champ Lyons Jr. wrote for the court. “[T]he municipal court has admitted that it has not been purging, modifying, or supplementing records only to the extent needed to correct inaccuracy or incompleteness. Rather, it has simply been removing the existence of its records from public databases based on no set standard. The [law] does not authorize such activity.”
Alabama law that allows criminal justice agencies to delete fingerprints and photographs of acquitted defendants and modify inaccurate data in criminal records does not permit the courts to remove entire criminal files from the public record, the court ruled.
Lyons wrote that the issue is more appropriate for the Legislature than the court to address and noted that other states have clear guidelines for courts to follow in determining whether to expunge records.
Mobile Register attorney Archibald Reeves said such openness is important “because it allows the public to see a true record of the proceedings — who was arrested and how their charges were disposed of. Charges aren’t necessarily dropped because the party was innocent — there could be political reasons. Having complete access allows the public to see any patterns, like wrongful prosecutions or favoritism.”
The case arose after the Register was told in early 2005 that no court records existed concerning a drunken driving charge against Mobile County school board President David Thomas. The Mobile Municipal Court later revealed that the records existed, but could not be released because they were expunged from the public record but not destroyed. Further investigation by the paper revealed that the court had expunged more than 450 criminal cases in 2003 and 2004.
The Register sued to prohibit the court from expunging records and to acquire all records deleted from the public record since 1988. The Mobile Circuit Court ordered the court to stop expunging records, but denied access to the previously deleted files because providing the documents would be an “extremely overbroad and cumbersome process.” The Register appealed, arguing that denying access to the sealed records was inconsistent with the circuit court’s ruling. Lackey and Pedersen cross-appealed, arguing that the decision prohibiting expungement was wrong.
Lackey and Pedersen’s attorney, Ashton Hill, said that the lower court had been expunging records at the request of acquitted defendants and individuals who had been erroneously charged. “Some of these people were arrested under absolutely false pretenses,” Hill said. “We have many cases where somebody is arrested and gives the police another person’s name. When the person whose name the police has doesn’t show up in court, is arrested, and hauled into court — that person has an arrest record that follows him the rest of his life.”
Reeves acknowledged the potential damage caused by inaccurate arrest records, but thinks that expungement is not the answer. “Our position is that if problems like that exist, there should be some sort of reform, not expungement which would keep the public from even knowing the problem exists.”
Reeves does not think expungement is common. “We didn’t get any discovery on the subject, but it’s our understanding that it’s not all that widespread and it was primarily going on in the municipal court,” he said. “Some judges do it and some don’t and there isn’t consistency about who does it and how.”
Hill agreed. “There probably aren’t many judges who do that and, if they do, I suspect that they would keep quiet about it. By now, they have probably quietly instructed their clerks to put the files back on the shelves,” he said.
(Mobile Press Register, Inc. v. Lackey; Media Counsel: Archibald T. Reeves IV, McDowell, Knight, Roedder & Sledge, Mobile, Ala.) — SB