How To Clean Up Your Criminal History If You Cannot Seal or Expunge It

doggy-in-jail-298x300Its time for some shocking news, so brace yourself.

People lie.   People make accusations that aren’t true, or they make accusations that cannot be backed up by real evidence.  If you’ve ever been the victim of such dishonesty, your case was probably dismissed–but the scars remain.

At this point, its worth mentioning that dishonesty or false eyewitness accusations are not the only path to a bogus criminal arrest.  The fact is, people make mistakes on the job.  If you’re a cop, a mistake on the job leads to a whole lot of trouble for an arrestee.

For those of you who have been falsely accused, is there ever an apology?  No.  Are you given two tickets to Sea World for the inconvenience?   No.

The good news is, while the government rarely admits to the mistakes they make, we can remove some of the scorn that lingers after a wrongful arrest.  It’s called a seal, or an expunge.   In other words, a bogus charge doesn’t have to be a life sentence of humiliation.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of folks out there who cannot seal or expunge their record, even though the case was dropped.  Why?  Because they don’t qualify.   A prior conviction, even for something as small as a reckless driving charge, will prevent a sealing or expunge of any future criminal accusation.

Here’s an example of how a prior case can mess things up later: In January of 2017, client gets arrested for armed home invasion.  Very serious charge.  Very bogus arrest.  Charges dropped.  Client cannot get an apartment.  Cannot get a job.  Cannot do a darn thing, all because of a dropped charge. We attempt to expunge the home invasion case, but are denied because of a criminal driving while license suspended ticket for which he paid a $50.00 fine back in 1999.  Yikes!  

If you’re one of those folks who are disqualified from expunging or sealing, you’re probably wondering what else can be done to improve the situation, right?  Well, all hope is not lost.

There are still ways to improve a background check, so let’s go through the basics.  First, in the dropped home invasion above, one thing we do to fix this situation is to attempt to overturn the conviction on the 1999 driving while license suspended.  If we overturn the old conviction, that would pave the way for an expunge on the more serious case.  The legal foundations of such a manuever are shaky, for sure, but the idea is to get the 1999 court to agree to a withhold of adjudication pending the expunge of the more serious case, and then re-enter the adjudication after the expunge is complete (you need a really flexible judge, FYI).  Now, assuming we’re all out of options to clean up the prior record in order to pave the way to seal a more serious charge, we still have plenty of options that will improve a background check.

Here’s some things that can improve the situation:

(1) Remove as many mugshots as you can afford.  Your first line of defense is to have–at minimum–a neutral Google search.  Having 10 booking photos pop up after searching your name won’t get you a job, an apartment, or a promotion (they won’t even bother doing a full criminal background check at this point).

(2) Seek out computer geeks who can help you improve your online web reputation (a tad redundant, I know).   Again, most folks are conducting a Google search long before an official background check–so a positive Google search goes a long way in overlooking a negative criminal background.

(3) Petition the Governor’s Office of Executive Clemency for relief (full pardon, partial pardon, cancellation of fines, restoration of civil rights, firearm rights, and so on).

Today, we’re just going to discuss mugshot removal, because a criminal background check doesn’t even get out of the gate if you’ve got booking photos all over the internet.

Now, I realize that we have a First Amendment.  And with that, freedom of the press means that companies are permitted to publish the picture of folks who have been arrested.  But, we have to balance this right against the fact we shouldn’t be publishing information about criminal accusations that couldn’t be proved.  Sure, the publication of booking photos has been a newspaper tradition for decades.  Unfortunately, the internet has spawned an abuse of this First Amendment freedom by allowing companies extort money from citizens who have been found innocent of a crime.  A little later, we’ll discuss a new law that attempts to fix this problem.

So, the first thing you should do run a Google search on yourself by typing in “YOUR NAME, arrest”.  If your mugshot comes up, you’ve got to fix this.  Yes, this is pretty basic stuff, but you’d be surprised at how many folks don’t even realize that their jail pic has been published to the whole world since the day of arrest.  The good news is, there are ways to remove your mugshot.  The bad news is, it involves paying the mugshot websites hundreds, or thousands of dollars.

You know why its so expensive to remove mugshots?  Because its worth it.

I wish I could refer to you a reputable mugshot removal company, but I can’t.  Not because they’re all a scam, but because I haven’t done business with any of these folks.  So, I’ll give you a bit of hearsay.  Another defense attorney told me that a company was able to remove his client’s 38 mugshots for $3,800.  As such, I had one of my clients call this company, but my client’s quote was over $10,000, and he had less mugshots to remove (so he didn’t hire them)!  Go figure.  The pricing schemes on this service seem a bit suspect.    Be careful, and make sure they offer some sort of satisfaction guarantee.

Some of my attorney friends have sought to sue mugshot publishers after beating a case, and typically their grounds involve the fact that these sites never quite get the charges right.  Sometimes a misdemeanor improper exhibition gets reported as an indecent exposure.  If the charges published by these companies are not accurate, this may constitute libel or slander, so you should contact an attorney that handles such lawsuits.  Also, a local Orlando attorney was also in the process of filing a class action lawsuit against these websites, but such undertakings take years and I haven’t heard much lately.

For those of you who have mugshots even after your case has been sealed or expunged, you should reach out to the mugshot website to see if they’ll accept a certified copy of your expunge order (typically, there’s a “Contact Us” section on these websites, start there).  Some websites will remove the mugshot for free under these circumstances, while others will charge around $200 just to verify that your seal or expunge documentation is accurate.  Hum.

Now, I don’t want to get your hopes up, but Governor Scott signed a bill (SB 118) in June that regulates online mugshot companies by making it illegal for these websites to charge a fee to remove mugshots for citizens who have not been convicted of the crime.   The law requires removal of the booking photo within ten days of a written request.  I’m not sure how this is going to work out, as several other states have passed such laws and it seems that these companies rarely respond to local laws.  These websites are based out of the county, and its almost impossible to track down a physical address.  SB 118 doesn’t take effect until July 1st of 2018, so hang in there.