Should other people know if you get arrested?
That seems like a silly question in an open society that is based on having an open judicial system. Of course we want to know if our creepy neighbor got arrested for child molestation. Of course we want to know if one of our public officials got caught for drunk driving.
But there are some who are now pushing a Georgia legislative committee to limit access to that kind of information, at least in certain circumstances. At the heart of the issue is the fact that arrest information now lives on forever on the Internet, even if charges were dropped or the person was later found not guilty. That means that if an employer searches a prospective employee’s name online, that person’s arrest is easily found, perhaps endangering the individual’s job prospects.
Some now argue, however, that arrest data shouldn’t be so easily available on the Internet. What if the arrest was mistaken identity, or bogus charges trumped up from a domestic dispute?
Moreover, should someone’s reputation be tainted forever even if an arrest was the result of some youthful indiscretion? If a college kid gets arrested for DUI, should that charge be available online forever as a cloud over that person decades later?
There are two sides to this debate. One side argues that arrest data should not be available on the Internet indefinitely; that at some point it should sunset even for those who were found guilty of the charges. It’s not fair, they claim, to taint someone forever simply because data is now available online to be seen by anyone with a computer or cellphone.
The other side argues that arrest data is part of a historical record. One simply can’t make the past disappear by removing facts from the Internet, even if such removal is possible now. If someone is arrested, that’s a fact regardless of how the case was later adjudicated. And don’t prospective employers, neighbors and others have the right to know if a person was charged with a crime?
This debate is a classic example of the increasing tension of privacy vs. the public’s right to know. At what point does an individual’s right to privacy override the concept of an open judicial system?
One of the hallmarks of the U.S. that makes it different from most other nations is that we have a judicial system rooted in law, not the whims of men. We do not have a police and judicial system that is based on secret arrests and secret trials. That’s the kind of system you find in China, or the old USSR and in many other dictatorships where the rule of law is an unknown concept and where secrecy is used to cover-up government abuse.
But it is true that even with an open police and judicial system, there are flaws. Cops sometimes make mistakes and arrest the wrong person. Or law enforcement overreacts and in the heat of the moment, arrests people for minor or trumped-up reasons. (That’s why you should never argue with a cop over something as minor as a speeding ticket. Talk back and you may get charged with interfering with an officer and dragged off to jail for an arrest booking. That’s wrong, but it does happen.)
There are no easy answers to this issue. While the state could compel arresting agencies to remove arrest records from their websites after a certain period of time, that information often lives on in news websites that are protected by the First Amendment from government censorship.
The way to deal with this problem is not for government to seek to restrict access to information, but rather to make more legal information easily available. For example, the state should fund the creation of a statewide judicial database that collects judicial results from every circuit in the state. If John Doe is arrested, we should also be able to see how his case was eventually settled in the court system. That’s not possible to do today easily or quickly in Georgia.
The ObamaCare rollout has landed with a crashing thud. As many predicted, the government’s computer system wasn’t up to the task. I tried for five days to test the system by registering and then shopping for insurance rates in Northeast Georgia. So far, I’ve not been able to do that.
This problem does not bode well for President Obama, who has pinned his legacy to the ObamaCare mandate he rammed through Congress. What’s frightening is that this computer problem is just a very small part of the overall impact ObamaCare will have on health care in this nation for generations to come.
If they can’t get the computer system to work, just think about all the other areas in the law that might not work as promised, either.
Last week, I argued in this space that the SAT results reflected a growing divide in the nation between community cultures that are stable and affluent and those that are broken and poor. A review last week in the Wall Street Journal about a new book echoed that sentiment.
The book, “Average is Over,” by Tyler Cowen, argues a similar theme. His thesis, according to the review written by Philip Delves Broughten, is that the economy now requires the marriage of man and machine in such a way that many workers in the future won’t be able to master. Broughton summarizes the book this way:
“Mr. Cowen believes that America is dividing itself in two. At the top will be the 10% to 15% of high achievers, the ‘Tiger Mother’ kids if you like, whose self-motivation and mastery of technology will allow them to roar away into the future. Then there will be everyone else, slouching into an underfunded future of lower economic expectations, shantytowns and an endless diet of beans.”
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.