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Police are relying on sealed arrest records in new cases

New York City is infamous for its "stop-and-frisk" policy, which allowed officers to perform a pat-down search on anyone they suspected of carrying a firearm. This resulted in tens of thousands of innocent people, the vast majority of whom were African-American or Latino, being stopped, frisked, and given an arrest record despite having done nothing wrong.

Luckily, New York law requires police to seal or destroy old arrest reports that resulted in no charges. But according to a new lawsuit, police and prosecutors still have access to those old records and are using them to justify arrests, more serious charges or longer sentences.

"It's not just Facebook and Google that have big data, it's also police departments around the country using it to train the spotlight of their suspicion," said the lead attorney in the lawsuit. "But they're running their algorithms and their facial-recognition software on arrest records and mugshots that were supposed to have been destroyed."

According to the lawsuit, police in New York are only supposed to be able to access sealed arrest records with a court order. Yet the information is easily available to cops, sometimes being stored on their own laptops.

The lawsuit claims that over 400,000 arrests between 2014 and 2016 alone should have been sealed. They involve stops and frisks with no findings, arrests with no charges, and arrests for low-level offenses like skipping a subway fare. More than 80% involve African-Americans or Latinos.

This could be happening in Wisconsin, too

The New York lawsuit comes shortly after the nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center released a 50-state survey of police access to sealed arrest records. They found 25 states have such access, including Wisconsin, where the police still have full access to arrest records, even sealed or expunged ones.

And even when these arrests didn't result in any charges, they are often treated like evidence of wrongdoing. People with a history of arrests, even with no charges, may be labeled gang members or recidivists. Old arrests may be used to deny people access to mental health or drug treatment diversion programs.

Study after study has clearly shown that people of color are targeted by police more often, wrongfully arrested more often, charged more harshly and sentenced for longer than whites. Decades of aggressive policing against people of color have stacked up innumerable wrongful arrests, along with stops and frisks.

These arrests should never be used against a defendant because no judge or jury ever found that they had done anything illegal. Wisconsin needs to change its law so that sealed and expunged records are no longer available to law enforcement.

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