Guilty after proven innocent? Georgia pols fight law opening criminal records even without crime
ATLANTA – For 13 years, a Georgia woman has lived under the shadow of a child abuse investigation, though police cleared her of any wrongdoing.
The welts and bruises on her daughter's body turned out to be an allergic reaction to antibiotics. But the investigation showed up on criminal background checks, restricting her access to jobs, housing and even her daughter's school.
"I used to have to call ahead and let them know I was coming," said Theresa, who asked to keep her last name unpublished. "I always had to get a clearance if I wanted to participate in certain activities."
Late last year, Theresa was able to remove the investigation from public criminal records with the help of Ashley Deadwyler, an attorney with the Georgia Justice Project, a non-profit advocacy group that provides criminal defense for the indigent.
Lawmakers are now trying to ensure other Georgians don't have to go through the same ordeal, with a piece of legislation that advanced Tuesday in the Capitol.
GJP Executive Director Doug Ammar said many others still face this problem, because Georgia gives district attorneys discretion over whether to allow the restriction of arrest records, even if there's no conviction.
"They're the ones who often prosecute the cases. They're the ones who often lose the cases. And then they get to decide whether or not it comes off your record so that you can go on with your life," Ammar said.
Republican state Rep. Jay Neal sponsored legislation in the Georgia House to restrict law enforcement from disclosing records of dismissed charges to employers and other non-police entities. He said the measure would eliminate a double standard.
"In the United States, we are presumed innocent until proven guilty," Rep. Neal said. "But when it comes to seeking employment, that presumption goes away upon arrest."
But the proposed changes to Georgia's records restriction law concern some open-government advocates.
"Let's say a district attorney, after his or her investigation, decides not to go forward with any prosecution at all. The records essentially go away and disappear," said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. "We have no idea, as the public, whether or not that was a good decision, a bad decision or even whether the DA was doing her or his job."
Late Tuesday, the Georgia Senate unanimously passed a modified version of the legislation -- though it's unclear whether it has to return to the House for final approval. The change would still give prosecuting attorneys discretion over whether to allow restriction of individual arrest records created prior to July 1, 2013, when the legislation would take effect.
Although many privacy advocates view this as a watered down version of the original proposal, Marissa McCall Dodson, an APJ attorney who lobbied for records restriction reform, said she expects the "loophole" can be fixed through the courts or during next year's legislative session.