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N.M. governor vetoes bill to seal some criminal records

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  1. Court Access
A bill that would have sealed some criminal records -- from minor offenses to felonies -- was vetoed by New…

A bill that would have sealed some criminal records — from minor offenses to felonies — was vetoed by New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who stated the public and media had a right to know about important information relating to criminal proceedings.

The bill, which was vetoed last week, would have expunged the records pertaining to identity theft, wrongful arrest, release without conviction or after conviction if the person who “has been convicted of one or more misdemeanors or violations of a municipal ordinance arising out of one incident and who has had no other convictions” over a five-year period for misdemeanors or a 10-year period for domestic violence or abuse convictions.

Martinez released a veto memorandum outlining the reasons for her decision, stating that the bill would “fundamentally and negatively alter the New Mexico criminal justice system and place a significant impediment on the public’s and media’s right to know about information relating to convictions, arrests, and other criminal proceedings.”

“This bill would allow for the expungement of arrest and trial records of crimes ranging from municipal offenses to felonies, so long as there is no conviction — including sex offenses, batteries, assaults, domestic violence offenses, and other heinous crimes,” she wrote. “But even more concerning is that it also provides for the expungement of convictions for certain crimes, including domestic violence, allowing a court to decide that the public and media no longer deserve to know about an individual’s convictions.”

State Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who proposed the bill, was unavailable for comment. Sanchez believed that the bill would give some people who were convicted of misdemeanors a second chance, according to an Associated Press report.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized a common-law right “to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents" in the 1978 landmark case Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc. Many lower courts have recognized a constitutional right to court records as well.

A set of bills similar to the New Mexico Criminal Record Expungement Act was introduced in the New York State Assembly. The New York bills would amend the state’s criminal procedure law to allow the sealing of records of “eligible” misdemeanors, as well as records of persons convicted of criminal offenses, misdemeanors arising from separate instances, non-violent felonies arising from separate instances, and felonies arising from separate instances after a specified waiting period.

One of the bills would criminalize the publication of information in the sealed records.

The New York Bar Association’s Committee on Media Law wrote a letter in opposition to the bill, stating that “such information is certainly newsworthy, as it illuminates how criminal justice is applied in our state; and … in nearly all cases, information about such misdemeanor or felony convictions is not illegally obtained, given the general openness of state criminal record files and the fact that such information would be readily available to the public under the new statute years before it could be sealed (five years for misdemeanors and eight for felonies, according to subsection 4 of the Section.)”

In 2007, the American Bar Association Commission on Effective Criminal Sanctions developed a series of recommendations to help the re-entry into society of people with criminal convictions, including a suggestion that jurisdictions limit the access and dissemination of criminal histories. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote a letter in opposition to this recommendation, which was not passed.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· New Mexico – Open Courts Compendium: A. In general

· The First Amendment Handbook: Introduction — Criminal proceedings