New Hampshire should not hide criminal records

At least two New Hampshire lawmakers want the state to deliberately block employers’ ability to know whether a job candidate has a criminal record.

We think this is a terrible idea.

The lawmakers want to amend New Hampshire’s criminal-annulment law, RSA 651:A, that was vastly improved in 2011 after more than two years of study by the Legislature, the attorney general, court officers, defense attorneys, publishers, broadcasters and victim’s advocates.

Democratic state Rep. Joel Winters, of Nashua, and Republican state Rep. J.R. Hoell, of Dunbarton, say they will file bills to roll back changes made to the annulment law so that it will once again be illegal to acknowledge the factual truth of a person’s past crimes.

What is the compelling reason for this proposed change?

“I have a friend who is an attorney, who helps clients who made a mistake and want to move on,” Winters explained. “This legislation makes it easier to do that.”

As Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams succinctly counters: “There’s nothing in the present statute that doesn’t allow people to move on. What they want to do is act as if it never happened.”

Flaws in the state’s
criminal-annulment law came to light in 2008, after the Portsmouth Herald printed a story that revealed that a candidate for Rockingham County attorney, the county’s top law-enforcement position, had been convicted of simple domestic assault in 1989.

The candidate had subsequently had the conviction annulled and, under the state’s poorly written law, he argued that it had been a crime to reveal and publish information about the conviction.

The incumbent sheriff was forced to resign after acknowledging that he supplied the paper with the annulled criminal record. The sheriff said he did not know his action had been illegal.

The candidate then unsuccessfully sued the paper for publishing his annulled crime.

In dismissing the suit, Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Diane Nicolosi wrote: “The truth is that Plaintiff committed a domestic simple assault in 1989, and his conviction for this offense was subsequently annulled. The fact that a record of arrest and conviction may not now be open to the public does not make it disappear as though it never happened; nor does one’s character change on the day an annulment is granted.”

In 2011, the state amended its annulment law for a very basic reason: speaking the truth should not be a crime.

Further, Article 8 of the New Hampshire Constitution states: “The Public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.”

The state government should have no interest in shielding a person’s criminal history from law-abiding citizens who may or may not want to hire them. If a business wants to enter into a contract with someone, shouldn’t it have a right to know whether that person has been convicted of fraud?

Even if the state did want to deliberately make this mistake, the law is unenforceable.

If someone commits a crime and that crime is reported, it will live forever on the Internet. There is simply no way publishers and broadcasters could remove every item about every criminal who subsequently has their crime annulled.

The state’s criminal-annulment laws underwent a thoughtful review and were amended in 2011. We urge Winters and Hoell to withdraw their ill-considered proposals.

– Portsmouth Herald
Jan. 9, 2013