Georgia advances legislation to limit public arrest records

After being accused of a crime and then being cleared of wrongdoing, you would hope that the justice system would protect you against any negative consequences of that investigation.

Record expungement and record sealing are possibilities after a conviction, but what if your case was dismissed, and your name was cleared all together? What if the initial investigation and accusation was an error or mistake?

A Georgia woman who was accused of child abuse 13 years ago has suffered from the stigma of a criminal allegation, even after police cleared her of any wrongdoing. When officials realized that the welts and bruises on her daughter’s body were actually just an allergic reaction to antibiotics, the charges were dropped.

Despite her innocence, the investigation has showed up on her background checks. This stigma and exposure of a criminal investigation restricted her access to jobs and housing, and even resulted in limited access to her daughter’s school. She was required to call ahead and inform the school of her arrival and get special clearance to attend school activities.

Finally, last year, her attorney was able to remove the investigation from public criminal records.

Our “innocent until proven guilty” standard in the U.S. criminal justice system may be irrelevant for individuals whose arrest record has implicated them, even after a dismissal of charges. Arrest records can still be made available to the public, including employers, which sounds more like, “guilty after proven innocent,” especially when those records impact your rights.

Now, Georgia lawmakers are seeking to advance legislation to protect others who suffer similar injustices because of their arrest records. Advocates for the law understand that many individuals face this problem because district attorneys decide whether to restrict arrest records, even if there was no conviction. The new legislation would restrict law enforcement from disclosing records of dismissed charges to employers and other non-police entities.

Last week, the Georgia Senate unanimously passed a version of this legislation, but it is unclear whether it must return to the House for final approval. The new law would take effect in July 2013.

Source: Fox DFW, “Guilty after proven innocent? Georgia pols fight law opening criminal records even without crime,” March 28, 2012.