In the state of Florida, if you are arrested and/or charged with a crime, but the charges are eventually dropped, you have the ability, with the help of a Miami criminal defense attorney, to expunge your criminal record pursuant to Florida Statute 943.0585. Even if the charges were not dismissed, but you received a withhold of adjudication, you might be eligible to have your record sealed pursuant to Florida Statute 943.059. These statutes apply to individuals who have no prior convictions, and give the individual the ability to deny the arrest/charge if asked, and have the records of the case removed from public record and inaccessible except for in certain, limited circumstances. The purpose of these statutes is to give first time offenders, and those who were improperly arrested/charged, the ability to move on with their lives and not have the negative stigma of a criminal history follow them for the rest of their lives. However, these statutes only apply to the sealing or expunction of criminal records held by government agencies (law enforcement, clerk of courts, etc.).
Unfortunately, with the advent of online background search companies, which are often used by employers, colleges, banks, landlords, and any other private citizen looking to research an individual, the benefits afforded to those who have had their criminal histories sealed or expunged have been vitiated. According to a recent New York Times article, 9 out of 10 employers use a background search company to check on job applicants. These companies obtain the criminal history records while the case is still pending or immediately after it is concluded, before the sealing or expunction takes place, and are not required by law to remove the information from their database after a sealing/expunction. The same is said for companies that maintain, and post, mug shots of individuals, regardless if the charges were eventually dropped. The Florida legislature is currently considering a law that would prohibit online mug shot companies from charging people to remove mugshots from their website, which is a step in the right direction and will hopefully make this type of business less lucrative for those that look to abuse the use of mugshots to extort arrestees.
Some state and local governments are also responding by passing laws that prohibit employers from running background checks until late in the hiring process. This will hopefully give the applicants more of a chance at getting hired despite the information that may be on the background checks maintained by these private companies. However, this isn’t enough. Lawmakers need to update the seal/expunge laws to apply to any company that maintains criminal history data in order to restore the benefits of the laws, and help those first time offenders from being denied loans, jobs, education and housing based on a criminal history that a judge has ordered sealed/expunged.