The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that arrest records of citizens wrongfully taken into custody can be sealed from public inspection, but not destroyed.
In a 6-4 opinion, the court broadened the protection afforded such persons by overriding its own ruling of six years ago that required police only to note in arrest records that charges subsequently were dropped.
Under the new ruling, a person who "shows by clear and convincing evidence that the crime for which he was arrested did not occur or that he did not commit it" can obtain a court order through his own initiative to have the arrest records of both the courts and the police sealed.
Both Maryland and Virginia allow the expungement of arrest records for people acquitted or not prosecuted.
Ralph J. Temple, legal director for the area American Civil Liberties Union, which intervened in the District case, called the ruling "a severe disappointment." Higher federal courts long ago "provided for expungement destroying arrest records)," Temple noted.
Even with the sealing, Temple said, "this taint remains there to come out in the future to harm an innocent person" if a court later decides that an overriding public interest demands the unsealing of the records of a case.
The court asked prosecutors, defense attorneys and the ACLU to submit within 90 days proposals for carrying out the sealing procedure.
The U.S. attorney's office had no comment on the ruling. However, prosecutors had argued before the appeals court that a notation of no prosecution in the arrest record offered sufficient protection to an innocent person.
The appeals court left open the question of whether a person must admit an arrest on an employment or school application if the record of the case is sealed.
Judge John W. Kern III, writing for the majority, stated that a person should be given "an official explanation" of the case's disposition that could be given to prospective employers or schools.
But a concurring opinion by Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman, Jr. and Judge John M. Ferren suggests that the court's final order should include a procedure similar to the one followed in juvenile court, that "the proceedings shall be treated as if they never occurred."
The ruling came in the cases of five men who were arrested but never tried. The court majority agreed yesterday that "there is no basis to maintain the records" of three of the men.
They are Warren Hudson who was charged with homicide in a case in which, the city's medical examiner later concluded that the victim had committed suicide; Christopher Matthews, who was arrested because court records incorrectly stated that he had not attended traffic school and Benjamin tmack who was arrested and charged with carrying a gun. Later in open court, an assistant U.S. attorney "admitted that the appellee was "the wrong man.""
The appeals court remanded to Superior Court for further hearings a case involving Bruce James Naughton, charged with grand larceny and receiving stolen property. In a fifth case involving Michael Wayne Jones, who was charged with grand larceny, the court stated Jones "failed...to provide by clear and convincing evidence that the incident for which he was arrested did not constitute a crime or that someone other than he had committed" it.