TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – About 2.7 million criminal records in Florida could soon be sealed to the public under legislation awaiting action from the governor.
Defense attorneys love the idea, but public records advocates worry that it goes too far.
People accused of a crime are considered innocent until proven guilty. But in this internet age, once someone is arrested, many have found themselves presumed guilty because websites that publish mugshots charge arrestees to remove their photos even after they are found not guilty.
“If they pay one, how many are they going to continue to have to pay to have their picture off?” criminal defense attorney Lee Meadows said.
The bill originally sought to prevent websites from charging to remove arrest photos. But the legislation morphed into an automatic, sweeping closure of arrest records of people who are found innocent of crimes.
Open government activists say acquittal doesn’t mean not guilty.
“Many people are acquitted or charges are dropped because the witness refuses to testify,” Barbara Peterson of the First Amendment Foundation said.
Attorney General Pam Bondi said 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,” Bondi said.
There is also a fear that sealing the records could make it difficult for prospective employers to know whom they are hiring.
"You go to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement background check page, (and) that person won't be listed,” Peterson said.
Trial lawyer Bill Sheppard made the case that with the internet, nothing is ever 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,” Sheppard said.
Charging files of those found not guilty would still be public record, accessible through county courthouses, but to get the information you would need to know the county in which the person was charged.
Gov. Rick Scott has until June 20 to sign the bill into law, veto it or let it become law without his signature.