Legal Hotline: Clean Slate Law
Legal Hotline: Clean Slate Law
Q: A reader called our office demanding that we remove an article that covered his arrest and subsequent conviction for DUI. He said the conviction was erased under the Clean Slate law. Does the Clean Slate law require us to amend our digital archive?
A: No, the Clean Slate Law does not apply to the media, and news organizations have no legal duty to edit or remove content that was accurately reported.
The Clean Slate Law, Act 56 of 2018, requires the court and criminal justice agencies to automatically seal criminal history records related to certain misdemeanor and summary offense convictions, and criminal charges that did not result in a conviction. The timing of the Clean Slate seal varies based on the type of criminal history record at issue, but sealing misdemeanors, like many DUI convictions, can only occur after the person convicted has been free from crime for 10 years and all costs associated with the crime have been paid. Once the Clean Slate seal is ordered, public access to criminal history records at the court and criminal justice agencies is prohibited. The courts and criminal justice agencies still have access to the criminal history records; only public access is prohibited.
Even though there is no legal duty to alter digital archives under the Clean Slate law, some news organizations have implemented policies to deal with requests to remove digital content. Most news organizations evaluate requests on a case-by-case basis and require official records to verify the outcome of a criminal case as part of the review process. There are no hard and fast rules, and practices vary throughout the state, with some news organizations never altering accurate digital content, while others will update stories to reflect the outcome of a case, while others will remove or de-index content under appropriate circumstances.
News organizations must note that updates to digital content, such as posting an updated article, will re-start the statute of limitations for defamation, which is one year from the date of publication. The content must be accurate, and ideally, have official records to prove their accuracy since truth is an absolute defense to defamation.
The Clean Slate Law can also make certain criminal justice records inaccessible within the one-year statute of limitations under certain circumstances, such as where charges are dropped or where there is no record of conviction or ongoing prosecution. News organizations should always maintain copies of official records related to criminal justice coverage for at least one year from the date of publication, but longer in case the news organization updates digital content related to criminal justice coverage at a later date.
As noted at the outset, the Clean Slate Law does not apply to the media; it only applies to criminal justice agencies and the courts. The fact that a conviction has been “Clean Slated” does not impose a legal duty on news organizations to remove or alter digital content that was accurately reported at the time of the incident, and obviously, printed news coverage cannot be altered. News organizations have significant constitutional and common law rights to access information from the courts and to report on the criminal justice system; the Clean Slate law does not and cannot supersede these rights.
As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Please contact your news organization’s private counsel or the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.