The chorus of criticism surrounding the expungement provisions of Florida’s HB 86 reveals how little the critics understand of Florida’s existing record clearing laws. It also provides an excellent example of the how lawmakers selectively target injustice.
If enacted, HB 86 would expand Florida’s expungement law to make eligible cases that are dismissed at trial because the defendant successfully invoked a “stand your ground” defense. The critics, who have mostly been the media themselves, contend that this change would severely impede their ability to report on cases and affect how the law is applied. Those criticisms are not valid.
Allowing Expungement of Dismissed Stand Your Ground Does Not Affect Media Access
The reality is that a person who has their case dismissed at trial can already have their record concealed from the public, including the media, through Florida’s existing record sealing law (Florida Statute 943.059). So HB 86 does not adversely affect the media’s access to criminal records.
What HB 86 does is change the available remedy from record sealing to expungement. This change slightly expands the ability to conceal these records from the very few government entities that have access to sealed records.
Neither expungement nor record sealing pose a threat to the media’s ability to investigate and report. It takes about nine months to seal or expunge a case in Florida, so records would be available for almost an entire year after the case was dismissed. Expungement and record sealing do not affect non-governmental records, so all news accounts and commentary on the case would remain in public view. It should also be noted that many of these cases would remain on the books because the former defendant does not meet the many other requirements of the existing expungement and record sealing laws, or because the former defendant does not want to incur the time or hassle to expunge or seal their record.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, who sponsored the amendments to the law, said that the point of his bill is “… to ensure that someone who appropriately uses a Stand Your Ground defense doesn’t have their life ruined by the use of that defense.” He is absolutely correct. People who are innocent should not be subjected to the humiliation and discrimination that comes with having a criminal record.
However, the critics of HB 86 are missing the mark. The proper question about HB 86 is why only allow for expungement of cases that are dismissed at trial as a result of a stand your ground defense? Why not expand the right of expungement to other people who have had “their life ruined” after raising other valid defenses? Why not remove the other ridiculous restrictions that make Florida’s record clearing laws among the worst in the country?
Expungement laws can both advance important public policy goals and promote justice. The critics in the media should be asking Florida’s lawmakers to spend time expanding justice beyond their pet defendants.
Mathew Higbee is an attorney, founder of the national expungement law firm RecordGone.com and chairman of the Foundation for Continuing Justice.