Case Highlights the Limits on Sealing/Expungement
Court Rules that Media Coverage of Expunged Arrest Can Remain on the Internet
Although criminal record sealing and expungement are critical in helping ex-offenders try to put the past behind them and move on with their lives, not all aspects of a past arrest or conviction can be erased. A recent case highlights an important limit on sealing and expungement that acts as an additional “collateral consequence” for many who have been arrested for a crime. That limit is media reporting. In Martin v. Hearst, , the First Amendment and sealing/expungement rights collided in the question of whether a person can remove past truthful historical accounts of her criminal case reported in the media once her case has been sealed or expunged. This case shows that even if people may succeed in having their criminal records sealed and/or expunged (and, in this case, having the charges nolled), there is still a place where documentation of their arrest cannot be erased: news reports documenting the arrest which, due to today’s technology, are easily accessible on the Internet by a simple Google search.
The case of Martin v Hearst, decided in January 2015, documents these far-reaching and permanent consequences of an arrest – and shows how even when an individual’s criminal record has been erased, a past arrest can still have a tremendous negative impact on a person’s ability to start again with a “clean slate.” Arrested in 2010 for various drug charges, Ms. Martin’s case made news in the local Connecticut papers and online. Although the news stories contained accurate information at the time, once the criminal case against her was nolled and her arrest records erased, she asked the media outlets to remove the stories from their websites. They refused – and Martin filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, “asserting causes of action for libel, placing another in a false light before the public, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy by appropriation.” The court, however, in granting summary judgment to the defendant news corporation ruled that the articles did not need to be erased and can remain online – reasoning that Connecticut’s erasure laws do not alter truthful accounts of history. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with the District Court. They reasoned that the expungement statute in question created only a legal fiction that the arrest and conviction did not happen. In actuality, both the arrest and conviction did happen, and as long as the news reports were accurate at the time they were published, they were not defamatory.
This case is a reminder of the fact that although criminal records can be sealed, erased and expunged, for those whose cases were reported on in the media the collateral consequences of the arrest can live forever. Ms. Martin was unable to do anything to erase the media coverage about her arrest which, although it was later nolled and her record cleared, still remains up on the Internet for all to see. Although the ruling supports the media’s First Amendment right to report truthful information, it also rather sadly illustrates a major limitation on the concept of criminal record sealing and expungement in the Internet Age. These articles, containing unpleasant facts about the case which were true when published, will remain online in perpetuity, negatively affecting Ms. Martin’s ability to ever truly move forward with the clean slate that so many deserving ex-offenders need in order to have that all-important second chance.
For more information about this case and the decision, click here. In addition, for more information about the status of criminal record sealing or expungement in New York, and for any questions you may have surrounding record sealing or expungement, contact Rick Collins at [email protected] or 516-294-0300.