As a consequence of the services I provide to clients who are seeking Reputation Management assistance, I often come across circumstances in which individuals are looking to remove a criminal record entry (usually something minor) from a database that has been published online. A few weeks ago, a new client came to me with a conundrum. We’ll refer to him as John Doe. Without getting into specifics, I can tell you that John is what many of us would refer to as an average male, about 50 years old, who has been self-employed for the better part of a decade.
John started his own business at the turn of the century and slowly grew it to a point where he now has a handful of employees (both full time and part time). He depends on returning clients as well as acquiring new clients in order to maintain his payroll and overhead expenses while ensuring that he receives a reasonable salary.
So what is John’s problem? Well, back in the early 1980s – when he was in college – John had a run-in with the law. It wasn’t anything serious (or at least he hasn’t thought of it as being serious for the past 30 years), but John was arrested on campus, spent a couple of nights in jail and was subsequently released on a personal recognizance bond of $500. He had a court date. He pled No Contest to his “victimless crime,” and went on with his life jumping from one tech job to the other before starting his own company in the early 2000s. Because both his first and last name are included in his consulting businesses’ name (and also because John’s real name is not very common), one of his potential clients recently came across his “criminal activity” and arrest sheet when doing a simple Google search before contracting services. The result was the loss of a potentially important client, which means that John can no longer afford to hire two new full time employees that he had planned on bringing aboard this year.
Archived Arrest Sheets & Computerized Data Entry
Before I began working with John in a Reputation Management capacity, I decided to look into potentially getting his arrest sheet and corresponding information removed from the Internet completely. Since his crime was not anything close to a felony – and also because John has maintained a clean criminal slate for the past 30 years subsequent to the arrest – I figured it may be possible to talk to someone in the Records department within the jurisdiction to see if this was something that the Sheriff’s Department truly wanted to continue to publish in the name of Public Interest. I grew up in a law enforcement family, previously worked as a media representative and still have several family members who work in different capacities for government organizations, so I’m familiar with how information is passed to those with press credentials.
When I called the Sheriff’s Department in question (a medium-sized county in the state of Texas), I quickly found out that the publication of arrest information has changed quite a bit in the last few years. For one, the day-to-day operations of most departments (both municipal and county) are in many cases made available to all interested parties – regardless of whether they possess press credentials. What’s more, I learned that John’s arrest data had made it online because archived reports have now been digitalized in recent years. What was once a dusty file within a manila folder tucked away in some obscure file cabinet for the past 30 years has now made its way online into a public database that can be accessed from any computer by any individual.
When I contacted the Records Office of this particular Sheriff’s Department, the Office Administrator informed me that there was “absolutely no way” to get John’s data removed or unpublished due to the fact that his published data, as someone with a “criminal past,” is in the interest of the public. When I countered with whether it was truly in the Public’s interest to know about a misdemeanor crime that had transpired decades ago, the Administrator politely said that the only way to potentially get the data removed was for John to hire a lawyer and begin the painful, costly and time consuming process of getting the conviction expunged from his record. This process would cost well into the thousands of dollars, and would likely not be overturned at its conclusion. This led us to the strategy of publishing positive information about John’s person to gradually push down records of a past that were no longer relevant to his life. While this strategy wouldn’t remove the undesired search result from Google’s database, it would make it much less likely that a potential client of John’s would stumble across it from a simple Google search.
Fortunately, with time, we were able to eventually produce the results that John wanted. However, John’s plight sparked my interest. I decided to do some additional research into the process of how criminal records are being published online and made available to the Public. Even with the experience I have gained doing Reputation Management work for dozens of clients, I have to admit that I was somewhat shocked by what I learned with just a few phone calls for requests for information.
In that past, criminal data was only made available to the public for very serious crimes. These usually ranged from the publication of information on Sex Offenders to wanted felons who were being sought at the state or federal level. Traditionally speaking, the vast majority of the public (along with most privacy groups) are not at all opposed to having some information widely circulated when it deals with serious criminals. Statewide and nationwide criminal databases (available only to law enforcement officials and their liaisons – criminal prosecutors and investigators for the most part) automatically receive data on all arrests and convictions that involve a crime that is considered to be a Class B Misdemeanor or Above. The only arrest and conviction data that is not entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) or statewide database (the Texas Crime Information Center – or TCIC in John’s case) – is that which corresponds to a Class C Misdemeanor. Some examples of a typical Class C Misdemeanor are a speeding ticket, most traffic violations, public intoxication, minor in possession of alcohol or tobacco, disorderly conduct, petty theft, and hot checks (up to a certain amount – usually determined by each jurisdiction).
In John’s case, he was arrested for a Class B Misdemeanor. Some examples of this level of crime are prostitution (or solicitation of a prostitute), minor drug possession, DWI (first offense), a false 911 call, failure to pay child support, harassment, and minor criminal trespass. Because of this, his full name, date of birth, last known address, some credit information plus his photo are now contained within the TCIC database for the rest of his life. This perhaps wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the fact that archived records are now being published online through a process called “computerization” at an alarming rate. Police departments are routinely outsourcing data entry jobs to private firms (or have already done so) with the specific intent of making public records available to the public in the name of transparency.
Requests For Information
My research led me to make several phone calls and send out a number of emails to both large and small departments in an effort to get a feel for the general attitude when it came to the short and long-term future of making criminal arrest data available for all to see. When contacting the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), I was originally passed around to various areas such as the Legal Department, Press Office and even a Communications Manager. They automatically assumed that I wanted specific information on one person and made references to a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request. However, once they found out that I was seeking out non-specific information on how to get criminal data (for misdemeanor offenses) removed from a database, representatives of both departments stated that the only way to make this happen was to advise my client to hire a lawyer, visit the precinct in which the arrest was made, and begin the process of expunging the offense from his record. Then – and only then – would there exist the possibility of getting the data removed from a public database.
Calls to smaller departments and Sheriff’s offices in my home state of Texas revealed even more alarming news. In one county located near the city of San Antonio, all arrest information is routinely published on a webpage which can be accessed by anyone with a computer! What’s more, a handful of police departments I talked to no longer require an individual to carry press credentials if he or she wants to have access to day-to-day operational procedures such as arrest reports. When I inquired as to whether this would violate the privacy rights of the individuals involved, I was told that the trend is moving in the direction of “transparency” rather than the other way around. In other words, there is a very high probability that the practice of providing any member of the public a synopsis of any arrest that is made will become common practice. As one police chief told me directly, “We simply don’t have the time or resources to deal face-to-face with everyone who comes in requesting access to our arrest reports, so we provide a summary of each arrest and let them have at it.” That’s an unfortunate piece of news for those seeking Reputation Management services, as it leads one to conclude that John’s plight will be relived over and over again – involving anyone who was arrested for any crime or even ticketed for driving 5 miles per hour over the speed limit!
Compounding this situation is the fact that MANY for-profit organizations (including websites) deal almost exclusively in receiving this type of data and making it readily available to anyone who is in the mood to view this type of information. No longer is this a privilege extended to connected private investigators or legal teams; it is now and will be in the future a matter of public interest. The representatives I talked to were extremely vague about exactly how these for-profit entities might acquire (or even purchase) such data, but all were in agreement that it does happen.
The most important professional advice I could give someone who is seeking a pre-emptive method of managing their reputation online is to not get into trouble with the law. An open container of your favorite alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle or possession of a small amount of dope may not seem like a big deal to someone from a moral standpoint, but it does come with a Class B Misdemeanor charge and a reasonable likelihood that the offense will eventually find its way online into the public domain – where highly ranked websites will be all too happy Copy & Paste it to their own website. Even minor offenses could come with serious future consequences if you’re seeking out New Business for your company or even seeking employment.
I’d like to get some response from a couple of well-known, reputable privacy advocacy groups to get their reaction on the general direction of the publication of this data, but I’ll save that for another article. For now, the information released to the public generally is not accompanied by photos and birth dates (except for Sex Offenders and wanted suspects at the federal level), but there’s absolutely no guarantee that this will be the case in years to come – when Facial Recognition Software becomes more reliable and widely accepted.
From the several weeks of research I put in for this article, it seems probable that the overall sentiment when it comes to the publication of arrest data and conviction information is that things will become more transparent in the future.
Luckily for John and many people in his situation, there are effective, logical steps that one can take to push down an undesired search result and make it much more difficult for prying eyes to find out about a past arrest for a minor crime. Yet the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure holds true in today’s ever-evolving environment of Reputation Management.
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