Access of arrest information complicates job searches
CARLISLE — In the Internet age, information on nearly anything and everything is easily accessible.
Included in that trove of information are public records on arrests and convictions in the judicial system, made available through government sites, as well as through the media.
When police agencies report arrests to media agencies, those reports often are widely publicized and disseminated to the public. But what happens if the case is dropped, charges withdrawn or dismissed, or handled discreetly in the court system?
The Sentinel’s policy is to hold off on reporting about charges until they’re filed in court records. While the paper often follows the initial court proceedings, coverage frequently wanes if those charges are dropped or handled outside the public realm.
That’s increasingly become a problem for those seeking employment. Arrest information and coverage often is a deterrent to prospective employers, who can do a simple Internet search and find out almost anything about the job applicants — even after an official expungement, which clears a person’s record of the charges in question.
John Ransom, a former Dickinson College professor who was charged with possessing child pornography in 2009, is having that very problem. However, all documentation of Ransom’s arrest and legal battle were destroyed after the case was dropped and his record expunged.
Ransom said that everyone “charged with possessing child pornography or engaging in deviant acts with children is certainly looked at askance in the community, and I suffered that just as anyone else would in my position. In my case, the fact that I was a professor made it an especially juicy topic for conversation.”
Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said he was legally limited in what he could speak on in this instance, but said the case “was investigated, charged and he was one of 15 or 16 people charged at the same time. They were all publicized, and the media picked up on it because of his position, which is completely understandable.”
Ransom said he felt singled out because of the coverage, which he said was based on his position as a professor at the college.
“You enter into a very difficult emotional period and it is very hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
He was put on administrative leave, removed from the classroom and barred from campus after being charged in the crime. He fought the charges in county court, and after a suppression hearing, where evidence was thrown out, the case was eventually dropped.
“I was very relieved,” he said. “It wasn’t just that the charges were dismissed, it was the whole case against me was shown to be completely groundless.”
But Freed said the legal process worked as it should in that incident.
“The judge believed the information the search warrant was based on was stale,” he said. “You can’t un-ring the bell, to my mind, he was legitimately charged, the legal process took place and his case was expunged. Part of living in a free society is that the media has the right to cover these events. We make the decision at the time based on probable cause, and the coverage is what the coverage is.”
FINDING A JOB
Even after going through the legal process to have his record expunged, Ransom said he is still having trouble being hired.
“There was some debate, discussion with my lawyer about the possibility of expungement and we thought that would be valuable to try and rebuild my life a bit,” he said. “We won the case and then we said ‘well, now let’s get it expunged to help return to my career.’”
But that doesn’t mean that employers can’t find the information.
“I started applying for jobs, and I was offered a job at Bloomsburg University teaching in the political science department,” he said.
While in negotiations, he received a call from the dean who said the college was made aware of his “legal troubles” and “pulled the rug out from under me.”
He said not being hired was a direct result of the coverage of the story, even though the charges had been dismissed and the record expunged.
“Despite the fact that The Sentinel made front-page headline news of my case and showed up at the first pretrial hearing, The Sentinel never showed up at the subsequent hearings and as a result never reported in real time to their readers what was happening to my case,” he said. “The way I felt about it was linked to the process of public humiliation that is associated with this type of charge and treatment by leading agencies, leading institutions in the community, such as The Sentinel, which participated big-time in the public humiliation and assumption of guilt that went along with it.”
Because of this, he said he has put on hold his attempt to find another teaching position, because he does not want to go through the rigorous hiring process only to be told that this situation was being dug up again.
George Spohr, executive editor of The Sentinel, said he empathizes.
“We aggressively report arrests of public interest because that’s our job, but we aren’t as aggressive about following up,” Spohr said. “When someone is charged, that information is readily available. After that, it’s sometimes a lot harder to find. We could dedicate three reporters to keep up with court cases, and we still wouldn’t make a dent.”
Jasper Goldman, a student at Dickinson College from Long Island, N.Y., said he is in the same position, since he will soon graduate and try to find a job. However, coverage of a past incident, which was also subsequently expunged, may hinder that process.
Goldman said he was involved in an incident in November 2010, when he said he stopped a fight between a friend and another student. After that, he found out he was being charged with assault, even though he was not involved in the fight itself, he said.
“I found out that I personally was getting charged with assault from the article written by your newspaper,” he said. “I woke up that morning and I got a phone call from my sister saying, ‘go online, look up your name,’ and that was the first thing that came up.”
Goldman said he was prepared to take the case all the way to a jury to try to clear his name, but the day before he was set to enter the trial, the charges were withdrawn.
“I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, so I wanted to take it all the way and see him (the accuser) in court, and he refused to do that in the end,” he said. “The school had it completely documented that I was just a witness to the incident and documented that I had broken it up, and then he had gone past the school and did it separately with the police.”
Goldman then went through the legal process to get the case expunged, and now no official documentation on the situation exists. However, a simple Internet search shows the information is still out there.
“The first thing that happens when you Google my name, this article comes up with everything that happened,” he said. “My problem is that everyone who is hiring people in today’s day Googles their name(s) right after they get their application. What is happening with me is the first thing you Google comes up with the article with me being charged with assault. The problem I am having is that any future employer who is looking to hire me is going to see that as the first thing that comes up and that is obviously a huge deterrent from hiring someone if you think they have that type of background.”
The Sentinel’s policy is to amend articles with new information when it arises, but not to alter the original text, since it was factually accurate at the time. In Goldman’s case and Ransom’s case, the original coverage and charges — complete with their names — remain on cumberlink.com. However, in each instance, an editor’s note appears atop that coverage explaining that the cases had been expunged.
Even with the amended coverage in the original stories, Cumberland County Chief Public Defender Timothy Clawges said the Internet’s information is a concern for his clients and how public defenders do their jobs.
“I am becoming increasingly concerned about that, because I think there are private companies who periodically, maybe daily, do records checks or check on charges, and then maintain that,” he said. “I’ve heard it’s increasingly a concern, particularly at the lower levels.”
While clients are not entitled to free counsel in that area of the law, it is a problem for all attorneys.
“What we tell clients before they decide how they would like to resolve a case, is to remind them that they should assume that a criminal record is permanent, they can’t rely on an expungement down the road,” Clawges said.
Carol Lennon, branch manager at Manpower, a local staffing agency, said media reports do not factor into their hiring decisions.
Lennon said the agency uses outside companies to cull information on potential job seekers, but can only see information in official court documents, and articles in newspapers and other media outlets do not have sway in their hiring practices.
“We don’t go out on the Internet and seek the information,” she said. “We have companies that we go to, for example GIS (General Information Services) or Quest (Quest Diagnostics), and they do all the searching, we don’t do it ourselves.”
Both GIS and Quest are independent companies that provide background information and toxicology tests for potential job seekers.
If records are expunged, Lennon said that information will not show up in reports during the background check of an individual, but if there are pending charges, they would be able to gather that information.
But these hiring practices do not extend to all agencies, who may gather information from social media, court records and even media reports.