Expungements

An investigation into Alabama's expungement law, and the criminal case against a Baldwin County blogger/investigative reporter that turned him into a First Amendment fugitive.

Expungements

The legality of publishing illegally obtained material

The issue of what documents are legal for journalists, bloggers or even John Q. Public to publish is a hot one these days. The matter was brought to the fore nationally earlier this month in connection with the release of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. A couple of weeks ago CNN host Chris Cuomo warned his audience, “Remember, it’s illegal to possess these stolen documents. It’s different for the media. So everything you learn about this, you’re learning from us.” Scary, but also wrong. Just as it has been legal for newspapers, TV, bloggers and...

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Expungement data shows majority of petitions granted

By Eric Mann In response to a Lagniappe public records request, data released for the first time by the state’s Administrative Office of Courts shows that since the Alabama Legislature approved former Sen. Roger Bedford’s expungement bill in 2014, the state has received 586 petitions from people seeking to have their arrest records wiped clean. Of those, the state approved 413 petitions, or more than 70 percent. The data was made available by the AOC several months after multiple requests to various state agencies seeking information the AOC is required by law to keep. Interest in the law was...

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U.S. Marshals’ calls to fugitive still unexplained

After more than a month trying to get an official statement from the U.S. Marshals Service as to why one of its deputies became involved in a state misdemeanor case, Lagniappe finally got a response, but very few answers. In early May, U.S. Marshal Josh Devine called online journalist John Caylor and pressured him to surrender to Daphne police on a state misdemeanor charge related to Caylor’s publication of expunged criminal records. Caylor has alleged Devine was improperly using federal authority to bully him into removing records related to a federal judge and her clerk. And a Daphne police investigator says Devine contacted him around the time of Caylor’s arrest looking for information and claiming the reporter was a possible threat to the federal court. An audio recording Caylor made May 8 of Devine calling him appeared to bolster some of Caylor’s claims. It took the Marshals Service more than a month to respond, but Public Information Officer Delvin Brown only revealed during the month’s time there was apparently no investigation into Devine’s involvement in the case. Brown also repeatedly said if Devine were involved in an investigation, the Marshals would not be able to discuss it, but followed by saying he was unaware whether Devine was officially involved or not. In the recording Devine tells Caylor he was not officially investigating the matter. “As far as I know...

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Expungement law concerns sent to legislative committee

Alabama’s 2014 law allowing citizens to apply for the expungement of certain court records and criminalizing publication of those records could go before the House Judiciary Committee in the state’s next regular legislative session, according to one of the longest-tenured members of the Mobile delegation. Rep. Victor Gaston forwarded Lagniappe’s concerns about the law to the committee after he became aware of issues related to the law after Lagniappe co-publisher Rob Holbert voiced concerns to legislators in April. Among those concerns are that the law’s criminalization component represents an unconstitutional prior restraint on freedom of speech. “I don’t know whether the law is unconstitutional or constitutional, that’s up to the courts to decide, but I do think Lagniappe’s points are well made,” Gaston said. Gaston said the House Judiciary Committee is active and competent, with representatives from both political parties. He stressed the recommendation does not guarantee the committee will investigate and said it could take “a long, long time” before it is considered. “They consider every bill that is introduced and assigned to it,” Gaston said. “They look at the bills one at a time. They have a lot of work and don’t just sit down and start talking about everything right away.” Currently, the law has led to one online investigative reporter being arrested and charged with a Class B misdemeanor, as well as another charge against...

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What pasties on murals, crawfish and expungements have in common

It wasn’t so many years ago the owners of the Zebra Lounge on Dauphin Island Parkway found themselves putting pasties over the nipples of tribeswomen painted on the wall of their bar. For those who have led a more pious life, pasties are what exotic dancers, or “strippers” as they are called by less well-bred individuals, place over their nipples in order to adhere to certain “blue” laws governing what may and may not take place in an establishment where alcohol is served. And nearly 100 percent of the time a particular portion of that law addresses the state of undress of real live women with actual nipples. But in the case of the Zebra Lounge, art met bureaucracy, and art lost. Officers of the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board — or ABC — felt the decades-old mural depicting a tribal scene that fits the Zebra’s safari theme violated state law. So pasties were added to the mural. I won’t go through the lurid descriptions of things that can’t be shown anywhere a liquor license is required. But suffice it to say naked tribal murals are not mentioned specifically. Rather, things are open to interpretation. And there’s the problem with laws — often they are generally open to interpretation. And, at least in Alabama, they are often enforced in haphazard ways that sometimes leave me dizzy. Over the past...

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Request for expungement records comes up short

By Eric Mann The Alabama Administrative Office of Courts responded to a records request seeking data related to expunged court records statewide by saying its court record data system does not track information related to those records, despite a 2014 state law requiring it to do so. On April 1, Lagniappe submitted a public records request to the Administrative Office of Courts seeking the expungement data it is required by state law to provide to the Legislature, data the law says the office is supposed to keep. Section 15-27-13 of the Alabama code says, if requested by the state Legislature, the AOC is expected to provide an annual report specifying the number of applicants requesting expungement, the number of expungements granted, a list of the offenses expunged and a list of offenses not expunged. The report is not supposed to include any case-specific identifying information. On May 11, AOC public information officer Scott Hoyem responded to the records request. According to Hoyem, an AOC programmer said the department cannot provide the number of applicants requesting expungement or a list of offenses not expunged because that data is not tracked by its data system. Also, Hoyem said, the AOC cannot provide a list of offenses expunged because that data is deleted from its system and sent to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. According to Hoyem, the only data available for...

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Man on the run for publishing expunged records

By Eric Mann For the second time since March, a warrant has been issued for the arrest of investigative journalist John Caylor for publishing the expunged court records of a Mobile area federal court clerk, and now the U.S. Marshals Service appears to be involved in the state misdemeanor case. On March 30, Caylor turned himself in to Daphne police on a warrant for publishing the expunged 14-year-old court records of Thomas Scott Smith III, a clerk in the U.S. Southern District Court in Mobile. Caylor posted bail shortly after and faced a May 3 court date in Daphne Municipal Court. Caylor’s arrest was likely the first of its kind in the state based on a 2014 law which made it illegal to knowingly and maliciously publish a person’s expunged court record. Alabama Code 15-27-16 bans disclosure of information from an expunged file without a court order. Any individual who knows an expungement order was granted and who intentionally and maliciously divulges those records has committed a Class B misdemeanor and could face up to a year in jail. Caylor appeared before Judge Michael Hoyt and was ordered to remove the expunged records from his website, insider-magazine.com, while the case progresses. Hoyt continued the case until Aug. 9. Caylor’s court-appointed attorney, Parker Sweet, said Daphne has a policy of resetting cases when people show up for court unaware their...

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Alabama creates a First Amendment fugitive

John Caylor has been hiding from the law for almost a week now — hiding because he is wanted for printing the truth. Caylor is the first victim of Alabama’s unconstitutional expungement law passed two years ago. Now he’s hiding out of state, wanted by the city of Daphne for illegally publishing expunged records and also for contempt of court because he didn’t turn himself in last week. A civil suit has also been filed against him. And if that’s not enough, Caylor also says a U.S. Marshal is hounding him. If it sounds like a Grisham novel or a bad Mel Gibson-Julia Roberts movie, well, that’s how it’s kind of going down. We’ve been covering this story since Caylor first called in March to let us know he was going to be arrested the next day for doing something every journalist in America has known to be totally legal for hundreds of years — publishing a factual, legal document. Frankly I had no idea what Caylor was talking about when he said the state had passed a law making it illegal to publish an expunged record. The 2014 law was pushed ostensibly as a way of helping people who had committed youthful indiscretions get that black mark off their records. It sounds pretty innocuous, but the Legislature also slipped in language making it a Class B misdemeanor to...

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