The Reincarnation of Expunged Criminal Records
The New York Times reports:
In 41 states, people accused or convicted of crimes have the legal right to rewrite history. They can have their criminal records expunged, and in theory that means that all traces of their encounters with the justice system will disappear.
But enormous commercial databases are fast undoing the societal bargain of expungement, one that used to give people who had committed minor crimes a clean slate and a fresh start.
Most states seal at least some records of juvenile offenses. Many states also allow adults arrested for or convicted of minor crimes like possessing marijuana, shoplifting or disorderly conduct to ask a judge, sometimes after a certain amount of time has passed without further trouble, to expunge their records. If the judge agrees, the records are destroyed or sealed.
But real expungement is becoming significantly harder to accomplish in the electronic age. Records once held only in paper form by law enforcement agencies, courts and corrections departments are now routinely digitized and sold in bulk to the private sector. Some commercial databases now contain more than 100 million criminal records. They are updated only fitfully, and expunged records now often turn up in criminal background checks ordered by employers and landlords.
This is a major problem with commercial database companies that routinely sweep up information from public records. I think that the solution to this problem is for states making their records available to commercial databrokers to require them to promise that they will delete records when they are expunged and will correct records that initially had errors when a correction is later made to the record. This promise can be required as a condition of granting certain kinds of access (so long as the government isn’t constitutionally required to provide access to its record systems, it can require those seeking records to accept certain conditions in exchange for access). I explain why this approach is constitutional here. Unless something is done about the problem, people will lose the ability to expunge information from their records or to readily fix errors. Private companies are becoming one of the primary distributors of public records, and when they take on this role, they are often thwarting the existing balance the law establishes between privacy and open records.