A proposal to seal court records that have been expunged is getting a lot of push back, with the majority of people who submitted formal comments saying the records shouldn’t be kept secret.

The Hawaii state Judiciary, which floated the idea, solicited public comments between July and September because it’s considering adopting a rule that would seal all expunged records.

People facing criminal charges can apply for expungement a year after accepting a “deferred acceptance of guilty” or a “deferred acceptance of no contest” plea. Both allow charges to be dismissed as long as a person abides by certain conditions.

When a record is expunged, it is erased from the Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center’s online database, hiding it from employer background checks.

But expunged records are still available in hard copy at the courts.

Because the Judiciary is expanding its online database of records – misdemeanors were added to traffic and appellate offenses last month – the rule was proposed to make sure that the Judiciary’s policies jive with the criminal justice data center’s.

In addition to preventing expunged records from being available online, the rule would seal the paper copies.

Of the 19 comments submitted to the Judiciary, 11 said that the records shouldn’t automatically be sealed and stressed the importance of transparency in the judicial system.

Opponents: Public’s Right to Know

In addition to private individuals, representatives from Hawaii media organizations and a state senator said they strongly opposed sealing expunged records at the courts.

“This proposal is an affront to the public’s right to an open and transparent judicial system,” wrote Ed Lynch, managing editor at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “This rule proposal would make the state judicial system less accessible and transparent to the general public at a time when it should be striving to be more open.”

The Hawaii Society of Professional Journalists, Hawaii Reporter and Big Island Press also said that the rule change would impede the public’s right to know that criminal records exist.

“The sealing of the wrong documents could mean the public wouldn’t have crucial information in deciding whether someone is fit for office or appointment or whether a government agency did its job in vetting, hiring and promoting employees,” wrote Stirling Morita, president of the Hawaii chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Sen. Sam Slom, the only public official to comment on the proposal, echoed the media’s views.

“We need more, not less, judicial transparency and need to keep everyone’s rights in proper perspective, especially victims, the media and taxpayers,” Slom wrote. “Plea deferral is already controversial and leads many in the public to question the fairness of our process.”

Advocates: Need for a Second Chance

While many opposed the rule change, several people wrote in support of the idea. Most cited personal experiences with the judicial system and that sealing records allow people to move on with their lives.

“Having the court orders on public view really does not give one a second chance,” wrote Harriet Lum, who said she had a friend who was having trouble rebuilding his life with his court record still publicly available.

Commenters also said that it did not make sense to have the record erased from the criminal justice center database but still available on the Judiciary’s website.

“Formal expungement of arrest documents is a meaningless exercise if these files, as well as other court proceedings, remain on the Judiciary’s public Ho’ohiki website,” wrote Bernard Wilson, who had his dismissed charges expunged earlier this year.

Several said they were concerned that access to expunged records would discourage employers from hiring people whose charges were dismissed.

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