Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The police blotter will follow you around forever

Smaller local newspapers still have a police blotter page, where you can see who was pulled over for DWI or other offenses. These blotters only tell you that someone got arrested. And for some people, this is the only time their names will ever appear in the paper. In the age of Google, this is a problem, which is why the plaintiff in this case sued various media companies for libel when the criminal charges against her were dropped.

The case is Martin v. Hearst Corporation, decided on January 28. Plaintiff was arrested for drug-related offenses in Connecticut. When the articles about her appeared in the newspaper, they were true; plaintiff was arrested. But the charges were eventually nolled. In Connecticut, that means the records of her arrest and prosecution are erased under the "Erasure Statute," which says that "any person who shall have been the subject of such an erasure shall be deemed to have never been arrested ... and may so swear under oath." This happens when the individual is found not guilty or the charges are dismissed. Plaintiff claims now that the news of her arrest are now false and misleading.

Plaintiff makes an interesting argument. For all eternity, news of her arrest remains in the newspaper, and a Google search will tell the world that she was arrested for drug-related offenses. It's unfair because the charges were dropped and nolled under the Erasure Statute. As Judge Wesley writes,

The consequences of a criminal arrest are wide-ranging and long-lasting, even where an individual is subsequently found not guilty or the charges against him are dismissed. Employers or landlords might, for example, discriminate against prospective employees or tenants who have arrest records without distinguishing those merely arrested from those arrested and subsequently convicted.

The Court of Appeals (Wesley, Walker and Jacobs) rejects plaintiff's creative argument. The Court writes that there is no getting around the fact that plaintiff was arrested and that the newspaper accurately reported that at the time.

The Erasure Statute requires the state to erase certain official records of an arrest and grants the defendant the legal status of one who has not been arrested. But the Erasure Statute’s effects end there. The statute creates legal fictions, but it does not and cannot undo historical facts or convert once-true facts into falsehoods. Just as the Erasure Statute does not prevent the government from presenting witness testimony at a later trial that describes the conduct that underlies an erased arrest, the statute does not render historically accurate news accounts of an arrest tortious merely because the defendant is later deemed as a matter of legal fiction never to have been arrested.
As the news reports do not state or imply any facts that are not true, plaintiff has no defamation case. The Court says that reasonable readers know that some people who are arrested are guilty and some are not. "Reasonable readers understand that some people who are arrested are guilty and that others are not. Reasonable readers also know that in some cases individuals who are arrested will eventually have charges against them dropped. Reporting Martin’s arrest without an update may not be as complete a story as Martin would like, but it implies nothing false about her."

The New York Times published a piece on this issue a few years ago. Police blotter and other unflattering news articles are often the subject of reader requests to purge the articles from online databases. In case you're wondering, it would violate the First Amendment to pass a law requiring that newspapers publish a follow-up article to reflect the arrestee's exoneration. You can't force the paper to write something. The medial companies can if they want run a little corrective article to place the initial piece in context. But that is up to the paper, not the courts.

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