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Criminal records -- Protect privacy or preserve for public?

By James Monteleone
Does the general public have a right to know about criminal charges that have been dropped?

The criminal arrest of an adult in New Mexico is a matter of permanent public record regardless of whether that person is acquitted or the charges were dismissed.

But many likely New Mexico voters say it shouldn't be that way, a Journal Poll found.

Forty-nine percent of voters surveyed said they would support a state law that eliminates public access to police and court records of people who are arrested but not convicted of most crimes.

Thirty-eight percent of voters said they would oppose such a law; 13 percent said they did not know.

"I think this comes down to people's gut feelings on the individual privacy issues versus the public's right to know," said Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc. "They're leaning toward privacy, but not overwhelmingly."

Legislation allowing most criminal records to be expunged for individuals who were acquitted or had charges dropped passed the Legislature in 2007 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson. The proposed legislation would have prohibited expungement of arrests for crimes against children, sex crimes, domestic violence and DWI.

"On the one hand, if a person is arrested but not convicted, should this stay on their record for decades to come and perhaps jeopardize job opportunities?" Sanderoff said.

"On the other hand, if a person has a pattern of arrests and no convictions, is this something that should be accessible for anyone, from media to employers?" he said.

Different takes

Independent voters were slightly more likely than other groups to opt for increased privacy as 54 percent say they would support expungement. But 51 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans said they would support it.

Geographically, voters in New Mexico's northwest region voiced the strongest opposition to expungement. Fifty-seven percent of voters from that region said no.

In the Albuquerque metro area, by comparison, 54 percent of voters said they would support expungement. Just 30 percent in the Albuquerque area said no.

Generally, older voters voiced less enthusiasm for expungement than younger voters.

Male voters were slightly more likely than female voters to support expungement, with 52 percent of men saying they'd support it compared with 47 percent of women holding that view.

Among ethnic groups, Anglo voters were slightly more likely to support the provision, with 52 percent saying yes, compared with Hispanic voters at 49 percent support.

Methodology

The poll asked: "Would you support or oppose a law that would eliminate public access to police and court records of people arrested but not convicted of most crimes?"

The Journal Poll was conducted Sept. 9 through 11 by Research & Polling Inc. The sample is based on a scientific, statewide survey of 500 voters who cast ballots in the 2010 and 2012 elections and said they were likely to vote again this year.

The margin of error for the full sample of voters is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

All interviews were conducted live by professional interviewers, with multiple callbacks to households that did not initially answer the phone. Both landlines (73 percent) and cellphone numbers (27 percent) of proven general election voters were used.

Timothy E. Zerillo has been included in every edition of New England Super Lawyers since 2010, for his Super Lawyers page, go to http://www.superlawyers.com/maine/lawyer/Timothy-E-Zerillo/ab011be9-fc96-44e9-ad28-3956da48c1b4.html

Timothy E. Zerillo has a 10 out of 10 rating from AVVO.com - for his ratings page, go to http://www.avvo.com/attorneys/04112-me-timothy-zerillo-1844626.html

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