Florida Politics

Attorney general ‘concerned’ about blanket seal of criminal records

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. AP

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi says she’s “concerned” about a new exemption to the state’s Sunshine Law that would virtually eliminate Floridians’ access to millions of criminal and arrest records.

Approved unanimously by lawmakers last month, SB 118 would require clerks to seal more than 2.7 million criminal records and hundreds of thousands of arrest records for individuals who were found not guilty, acquitted at trial, had charges against them dropped or dismissed, or weren’t charged after being arrested.

That would effectively prevent people from knowing whether someone was arrested or charged with a crime when they ultimately aren’t convicted in a court of law.

“What concerns me about this — just as a career prosecutor: Sex offenders,” Bondi told reporters Tuesday. “I think some of those cases are very important, to be able to know about the past and the history. That does concern me.”

“We all know how difficult it is to convict a sex offender, and if they have a case again in the future, I think it’s important for people to be able to know about that. Those are the ones that concern me the most,” she added.

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The First Amendment Foundation raised similar fears in asking Gov. Rick Scott to veto SB 118. The non-profit organization — of which the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are members — said the legislation “constitutes a significant threat to the public safety.”

In a letter to Scott, foundation President Barbara Petersen wrote that one consequence would be that employers couldn’t check the criminal history of job candidates — for instance, an applicant seeking employment at a daycare center who might have been charged, but not convicted, multiple times for criminal acts against a child.

Bill sponsor and Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube defended the proposal previously by saying it would remove a stigma for people who aren’t convicted in a court of law.

SB 118 was among the most high-profile of 17 new exceptions to the Sunshine Law that lawmakers approved this spring — potential laws that further erode constitutional guarantees to access government records and observe meetings of their elected officials.

SB 118 has not yet been sent to Scott’s desk. Once it is, he’ll have 15 days to decide whether to approve it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

Herald/Times staff writer Michael Auslen contributed.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark