CCRC is pleased to announce that we are undertaking a major study of the public availability and use of non-conviction records – including arrests that are never charged, charges that are dismissed, deferred dispositions, and acquittals. Law enforcement agencies and courts frequently make these records available to the public through background checks, and allow their widespread dissemination on the internet. This can lead to significant discrimination against people who have not been judged guilty of any wrong-doing, and result unfairly in barriers to employment, housing, education, and many other opportunities. While almost every U.S. jurisdiction makes some provision for limiting public access to non-conviction records through mechanisms like sealing or expungement, such relief provisions vary widely in availability and effect, and are often hard to take advantage of without a lawyer. What’s more, arrest records may remain accessible on the internet long after official files have been made confidential or even destroyed. While CCRC’s Restoration of Rights Project now includes state-by-state information on how non-conviction records may be sealed or expunged, our new project will examine applicable laws more closely.
The first phase of this project, which is nearing completion, will produce a detailed inventory of the laws in each U.S. jurisdiction for limiting public access to arrests and/or judicial proceedings that do not result in conviction. Among other things, this inventory will examine eligibility criteria, procedures (including any filing fees), and scope of relief. We will also note where state law or court rulings permit sealing of dismissed charges where one or more charges in a case do result in conviction. In a second phase of this project, we will consult with policy experts to conduct a nationwide analysis, examining specific issues across all jurisdictions, identifying patterns and gaps in existing policies. The goal of a third phase will be to produce model legislation.
To mark the launch of our project on non-conviction records, we are pleased to publish the following op-ed, prepared for CCRC by Professors Jordan M. Hyatt and Sarah E. Lageson, which calls on legislators, law enforcement, and scholars to address the damage caused by bulk publication on the internet of pre-conviction information such as booking information and mugshots.
It’s Time to Address the Damage of a ‘Criminal’ Digital Reputation
By Jordan M. Hyatt and Sarah E. Lageson
“Kill this secret arrest bill,” advocated a recent editorial in an upstate New York newspaper. “Mugshot proposal pits privacy versus the right to know,” claimed another. These articles and op-eds were in clear opposition to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent proposal to halt the routine release of criminal mug shots unless there is a compelling law enforcement reason to do so. In his 2020 executive budget, the governor overtly recommends broad limitations on the unregulated release of potentially damaging pictures and information gathered during the arrest and pre-conviction processes.
The rationale for ending bulk disclosure of criminal record data lies in the harms presented by relatively unfettered access to all forms of criminal “records” on the internet. The current levels of availability have led to massive extortion and blackmail schemes, and leave mugshot subjects with enduring “digital punishment.” In Cuomo’s view, the only way to prevent such abuses of criminal justice data is to prevent the release in the first place. If his measure gains support, the public release of booking information and mugshots would no longer be permitted in New York, as their distribution would be considered “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Many advocates agree that this reform would directly benefit individuals currently impacted and stigmatized by these policies.
New York is not the first state to grapple with the question of mugshots and arrest records. Several states, including California and Pennsylvania, have taken affirmative action against the release of mugshots through criminal charges and class action lawsuits. Dozens of states have passed laws banning mugshot extortion schemes, which monetize these harms by charging takedown fees to people who request that their photo be removed.
Limiting public access to mugshots, arrest records, and other pre-conviction records means recognizing that those records are part of the sources of collateral consequences. A criminal digital reputation can fuel stigmatization and negatively impact individuals for much longer than they ever spent behind bars — especially if charges were later dismissed or an arrest was expunged or sealed. Having a universally accessible criminal record – even for an arrest – also means being permanently labeled on the internet as an “offender,” presenting a host of collateral consequences. Research has established that opportunities for employment, housing and governmental services are sharply curtailed, social and familial relationships are strained, and reputations are often irreparably damaged. These conclusions have been drawn by stakeholders across the ideological spectrum, from the ACLU to the Heritage Foundation.
For scholars, it might be time to consider the ways that digital access has expanded the scope of the traditionally recognized collateral consequences. Today, criminal records are much more than the official court file. A shadowy industry has worked to expand this definition. These images and records, frequently indexed by search engines, are more visible, harder to correct and more likely to trigger collateral consequences than any court record. The accompanying information is often incomplete or inaccurate. Not only does this line the pockets of the website’s owners, it disproportionately impacts the poorest citizens.
While many reforms are progressive, they are not without precedent. There is currently a legal justification for making some, but not all, criminal history data publicly available for reasons of public safety, including through sex offender registries. These are the reasoned actions of the state and an elected government. But, in this digital world, meaningful rehabilitation requires a more nuanced approach – one that prevents the damage inflicted from the publication of a dismissed charge and that protects people’s ability to move on from an outdated conviction. Any solution must protect arrestees from extortion while preserving law enforcement’s ability to do their job.
Legislators and law enforcement must take action at the federal, state and local levels. And as Governor Cuomo has suggested, the conversation must begin by openly reconsidering the scope of publicly available mugshots and arrest data. Authorities should start treating these records as truly sensitive information and consider if these data should be released and, if they are, what usages are acceptable.
At a minimum, the rights of potentially-innocent arrestees should be protected by limiting access to booking photos at least until after a preliminary hearing in front of a judge. Systems must be put in place to ensure that the criminal records that are released are accurate and complete. The industry of mugshot extortion must be legislated out of existence.
Progressive statutory and enforcement reform may be necessary to facilitate this change. Failing to check the usage of illicit mugshots for fiscal gain undermines confidence in law enforcement, the courts and ongoing efforts to undo the harms of a criminal justice system with a documented history of inequity and disparate treatment.
Jordan M. Hyatt is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies, Drexel University (Philadelphia, PA).
Sarah E. Lageson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University (Newark, NJ).