Friday, June 1, 2007

Colorado legislators have approved a bill that would permit convicted criminals to seal certain criminal court records

Colorado legislators have approved a bill that would permit convicted criminals to seal certain criminal court records, a move open government advocates say would impede the public's right to know.

The bill is now on the desk of Gov. Bill Ritter, who has until June 4 to sign the legislation. The proposed law would allow people convicted of crimes to petition the courts 10 years after their cases have ended to have their criminal records sealed. The bill applies to people who have had no convictions in a decade and excludes certain criminal convictions, including traffic offenses, DUI, child abuse and sex offenses.

If their requests are granted, those people then would not have to indicate on a job application, except to a criminal justice agency, that they were convicted.

In a nod to the concerns raised by the Colorado Press Association, the bill was amended to require court administrators to post notices of requests to seal criminal records on court Web sites for 30 days. The public may also ask to have cases unsealed based on new information or circumstances that could tip the balance in favor of public disclosure.

Greg Romberg, a lobbyist for the press association, said the media is still opposed to the bill. "Public records should remain open to the public," he said.

Romberg said, however, that the changes at least mitigate some of the negative effects of the bill by allowing the public's concerns about sealing records to "come to light" in a court hearing, which the original version of the bill did not allow.

He also said the change about allowing previously sealed cases to be reopened could apply in cases where people have made themselves into public figures by, for instance, running for public office.

"That would be a situation where it would be hard for a judge not to take a look at that," he said.

Currently, Colorado law allows records to be sealed when a person was not charged or when charges were dismissed because of a plea agreement in another case. The bill now under consideration would also reduce the amount of time those people must wait to ask to have their records sealed, from 15 years to 10 years after all criminal proceedings end.

The state House approved the legislation by a 46-18 vote in April, while state senators passed the bill earlier this month in a 26-8 vote. The proposed law was introduced in January.