Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Worried your daughter's new boyfriend might have a nefarious past? Want to know whether the job applicant in front of you has a rap sheet?
Finding out can be a mouse click away, thanks to the growing crop of searchable online databases run directly by states. Vermont launched its service Monday, and now about 20 states have some form of them.
The Web sites provide a valuable and time-saving service to employers and businesses by allowing them to look up criminal convictions without having to submit written requests and wait for the responses. And they're popular: Last month alone, Florida's site performed 38,755 record checks
But the Internet debut of information historically kept in courthouses in paper files can magnify the harm of clerical errors, expose states to liability for mistakes and spell new headaches for people who've long since done their time, only to have information about their crime bared anew.
"It's unfortunate in that it threatens what I see as the uniquely American ideal of being able to start over, after you've paid your penance, to go to a new community without the blemish of your crime and starting a new life," said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based group focused on civil liberties online.
Vermont's system, which costs $20 to query one person's records, includes information on criminal convictions dating to the 1940s. It taps into the Vermont Criminal Information Center database used by law- enforcement agencies, which state officials claim has fewer mistakes than courthouse records or the data sold by private information brokers working off those records.
All you need to make an inquiry is a person's name and date of birth, and a credit card to pay the fee.
If the query finds a record, the system lists the date of conviction, charge, sentence and venue. It won't show the original charge filed, or give information about the victim or the circumstances of the crime.
Also inaccessible, according to officials, are records that have been expunged or sealed. And people can report mistakes in the records on them and ask for changes.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Vermont chapter, opposed the state's move, in part because it sets up a two-tiered system of records - one set at the courthouse and another online. The online system gives only a slice of information about the cases, he said. [Mark Godsey]