Last week, the Iowa Senate and Iowa House passed Senate File 385 unanimously. It’s now sitting on the Governor’s desk, and assuming the Governor signs off on the bill, then beginning January 1st of next year a person who has been charged with a crime/crimes can request that the corresponding criminal case record be “expunged” (removed from public access) if all criminal charges filed in the case are dismissed, or if s/he is found not guilty of all criminal charges (so long as all court costs have been paid and at least six months have elapsed since the NG verdict was entered or the case was dismissed). Currently, detailed information concerning all dismissed/acquitted criminal cases can be accessed electronically at Iowa Courts Online (the judicial branch’s court records website) or in person at the local clerk of court’s office, and there is no legal mechanism to remove that information from public access. Ever.
This past Saturday, the editorial board of the Des Moines Register declared that allowing these court records to be expunged is “a monumentally bad idea” and advised Governor Branstad to veto Senate File 385. The editorial argues that because Iowa Courts Online clearly indicates the status of each criminal case (assuming you click on each individual case’s hyperlink), it’s “the one tool that can actually prevent people from wrongly assuming a person is guilty” of a dismissed charge – because the online records will clearly reflect if a case has been dismissed, assuming that court records on dismissed charges remain accessible on Iowa Courts Online. And thus (I assume the reasoning goes) the fact that a prospective landlord, employer, loan officer, significant other, etc can easily access unproven allegations of criminal conduct on Iowa Courts Online can’t possibly cause any problems for the Iowans accused of these unproven allegations, since Iowa Courts Online also informs the prospective landlord/employer/ loan officer/significant other/whomever that the criminal case was dismissed. No harm, no foul, right?
Wrong. Because unfortunately, as those of us who live in the real world are well aware, many (maybe most?) people assume that a person charged with a crime must have done something wrong – and probably something criminally wrong – regardless of the eventual disposition of the criminal case. The stigma associated with just being charged with a crime is extremely pervasive and strongly entrenched in our society, and can negatively impact a defendant’s life on a short and long term basis, even if the criminal case is eventually dismissed and even if the dismissed status of the case is clearly reflected in public records. It’s not pretty, and it’s not politically correct (because innocent until proven guilty, right?), but come on … we all know it’s true. And in my opinion, for the Register’s editorial board to suggest otherwise is either absurdly naïve, or deliberately obtuse – I’m not sure which.
What I am sure of is that every year, thousands of Iowans are charged with crimes that are eventually dismissed, and I’m also sure that many of these Iowans have missed out on opportunities – jobs, promotions, nice apartments, loans, etc. – at least in part because information regarding unproven and often completely untrue allegations of criminal misconduct is readily accessible on Iowa Courts Online. Many of these Iowans sincerely believe that they are being treated like criminals despite never having been convicted of a crime, and I am 100% sure that the majority of them will be anxious to take advantage of the expungement mechanism created by Senate File 385. It’s a good little bill that will make the lives of a lot of law abiding, hard working Iowans just a little bit better, at little if any cost to the government – that’s why Senate File 385 passed the House and Senate without a single dissenting vote, and it’s why I’m confident that Governor Branstad will NOT veto Senate File 385.
A few other points:
- Oversight/Accountability: In direct response to the Newspaper Association’s concerns re the need for public oversight of cases in which dismissals/acquittals are entered, the legislature amended the original bill so as to require a minimum delay of at least six months between entry of an order dismissing a case and entry of an order expunging the case, in order to allow interested parties ample opportunity to review and copy any and all portions of any and every criminal file in which a dismissal or not guilty verdict is entered. Adding this provision to the bill didn’t satisfy the Newspaper Association (apparently when it comes to compromise, its members employ the same “my way or the highway” strategy that newspaper editorials generally deplore when employed by elected officials), but I do think that the legislature’s good faith attempt to specifically address the Newspaper Association’s primary objection to the bill merited at least a mention in the Des Moines Register’s editorial setting out the Newspaper Association’s objections to the bill. I mean, fair is fair, right?
- It’s Up to the Defendant: Expungement of the court records concerning cases in which a defendant is found not guilty or in which all charges are dismissed is completely optional – it’s up to the individual defendant. While either a defendant or a prosecutor can request expungment, under the bill a judge can’t expunge a case unless the defendant establishes that the necessary prerequisites to expungement have been met … so if a person who is charged with a crime that is later dismissed believes (for some unfathomable reason) that it is in his/her best interests to leave the court records associated with that criminal charge forever accessible to the public, then those court records will remain forever accessible to the public.
- Plea Agreements Don’t Qualify: If a defendant accepts a plea agreement – e.g., pleads guilty to a lesser included crime, or in the case of a multi-count trial information pleads guilty to some counts in exchange for the dismissal of other counts – the entire court case will remain public record; this is also true if the defendant goes to trial and is found guilty of anything at all. The only court records that can be expunged under this bill are those cases in which the defendant is found not guilty of all charges, or in which all charges against the defendant are dismissed.