Clean Slate Law: The public has a right to know ... until it doesn’t


“People deserve a second chance” was the refrain sung at a Tuesday event celebrating a new state policy that erases old criminal records from public view after seven to 10 years.

Under the “Clean Slate” law, the police will still know about the old offenses. A judge could find out about the old offenses. 

But if you try to dig up the old offenses by running a $10 background check on iChat, the Michigan State Police report will no longer show it. If you go to a courthouse and try to look up an old criminal case, it’s no longer available.

If I, as a news reporter, found out about an old offense of (let’s say) a person running for public office — either through a LexisNexis search or looking up the case in news archives — and published the information, the law reads I’d be committing a 90-day, $500 misdemeanor.

Now, you may be OK with this. After all, the whole point of this law that was overwhelmingly embraced by Republicans, Democrats and the governor alike was to give people a “fresh start.”

They no longer have a scarlet letter printed on their chest as they look for a new job, volunteer at their child’s school or apply for housing.

According to the state, as many as 1 million people will be impacted by this new law. That’s 1/10th of of Michigan’s population.

It’s sad that a law needed to be created for people to give their fellow humans a second chance. 

We needed to actually erase history — not only pretend it didn’t exist but criminalize its reutterance. We couldn’t find it in our hearts to believe someone when they said, “I messed up when I was in my teens/20s, I learned from it, I’m a much better person today for it.”

To quote a former colleague, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

The nice thing, in this case, is the public’s right to know, which is slowly deteriorating under our noses. 

Back in 2014, the Capitol news service MIRS found 43 bills introduced in Lansing that exempted disclosure of something under the Freedom of Information Act. Of those, 21 passed at least one chamber. On the other side of things, 29 bills expanded disclosure. Only seven passed a chamber.

The situation continues to worsen. Three years ago, I was able to obtain the date of birth and home address of anyone running for the Legislature. With that information, I was able to double-check that they lived at the address they claimed to live at and that they didn’t have a criminal record.

Today — after a protest at the secretary of state’s residence — a state-level candidate’s address and date of birth are now redacted as a privacy issue. The Bureau of Elections isn’t verifying addresses and DOBs. And, now, it’s difficult for the media to do it, too.

Try to find information on gubernatorial pardons and commutations. It’s a lot harder today than it was. 

Try getting a report out of a police department. For Michigan State University Police and many other departments, everything is an “active investigation” or a clear invasion of privacy.

When the “Sunshine Laws” were created shortly after the Nixon-Watergate scandals, politicians were desperately trying to earn back the trust of the American public.

Today, expanding disclosure laws has become something politicians and state legislators talk about once a year but aren’t serious about passing. 

Expanding the “people’s right to know” makes great rhetoric, but the second that information becomes uncomfortable or is used as a weapon against another, everybody’s access to it goes away.

It’s gotten so bad that even the names of people who make Freedom of Information Act requests to the state are covered up with black ink.

Granted, all of this means a lot more to me than it means to you … until having that information means much more to you than it means to me.



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