Lawmakers mulling how far government should go to make certain crime records secret

jmonk@thestate.comApril 21, 2014 

Although Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed a bill two years ago that would have allowed various kinds of criminals to have their criminal histories deleted from the public record, new efforts are underway again in the General Assembly this year to try again.

At the same time, a separate move would create a special General Assembly committee to study how many crimes can now be expunged – that is, put under seal or erased completely – from the public record and under what circumstances.

“What we want to do is have some uniformity in expungements in South Carolina,” said Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, the sponsor of S. 900, a resolution that would create the special study committee.

“A study committee is the best way to iron out all issues related to expungements in South Carolina,” Allen said. “The best way is a uniform approach.”

Allen’s proposed study committee passed the Senate earlier this year. It is now on the House floor and scheduled for debate on May 6. If approved, the committee would study how expungement is done in South Carolina, look at practices in other states and make a report to the General Assembly by Oct. 13. Any vote on the study committee’s findings would wait until next year when the Legislature is back in session.

The seemingly simple issue of expungements is controversial. It already is common practice to expunge certain arrest records or convictions for nonviolent crimes in various cases, such as simple drug offense when a first offender completes a pre-trial intervention program.

Nonviolent offenders like such programs – and their expungements – because they allow a fresh start in life without having a lifelong blemish on their record that might cause them to lose out on a job.

But victims’ groups, press organizations and many in law enforcement – all of whom depend on accurate and complete historical records to inform the public, reconstruct events or examine trends – are wary of going too far.

“Generally speaking, the public has a right to know about peoples’ criminal histories,” said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council. “And a light crime may have been pled down from a more serious change. And – if you are hiring a health care worker or accountant, you need to know about their backgrounds.”

Hudson is a strong backer of Allen’s proposed study committee, which would scrutinize the entire range of issues associated with making now-public crime records off-limits to the public.

So is open government advocate Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association.

“Just what is going on with expungement in our state? How many of them are there? Who’s getting expunged? Is it just for the rich who can afford good lawyers?” said Rogers.

As Allen’s bill has moved through the Legislature, a separate, narrowly drawn bill that appeared to make secret numerous now-public crime records, such as incident reports, was passed by the House.

That bill, H. 4560, sparked such concern among open government and victims’ advocates, as well as law enforcement agencies like SLED and the S.C. Attorney General’s office, that earlier this month the bill was modified to eliminate the possibility of now-public crime records being kept secret.

And it was clarified to make certain that various types of records now under seal wouldn’t be destroyed but would be kept sealed so that law enforcement might have access to them if needed for a later criminal investigation or to provide evidence in a lawsuit.

“It would authorize local governments to keep under seal certain documents that were subject to being expunged,” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, chairman of the committee that changed H. 4560.

No bill would try to censor anything that has been published in a newspaper or internet site, Hutto said.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, said in general, expungements for certain types of lesser crimes are a good idea.

“After a period of time, 15 to 20 years, I think it’s probably a wise thing to look at expungements, particularly for young folks who may have committed an offense in their early 20s,” Martin said. “Not real serious crimes, but minor.”

The modified H. 4560 is now headed to the Judiciary Committee.

Hudson said the law enforcement, press and victims’ groups that helped shape changes in Hutto’s committee will be keeping an eye on the bill to make sure it’s not ‘’Christmas treed” – loaded up with amendments by senators who might want to make secret more public crime records.

“My fear is there will be mischief,” Hudson said. “Crime victims will be watching that very carefully.”

Besides victims’ and press groups, other organizations interested in expungement matters are the S.C. Attorney General’s office, the S.C. Sheriff’s Association, the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination and the State Law Enforcement Division.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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