Criminal Justice

Arrest records linger in FBI database and websites; acquitted law student sees consequences


Getting arrested doesn’t necessarily result in conviction or even prosecution.

But arrest records in an FBI master criminal database aren’t always updated with the disposition, the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) reports. And individuals trying to find proof of dropped charges can hit roadblocks when the cases are old and local records no longer exist.

The FBI database has 77.7 million individuals on file, a number that is equal to about one-third of the U.S. population, the story says. It’s up to local authorities to notify the FBI if charges are dropped or a defendant is acquitted, according to this companion story by the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire blog. Notification isn’t required. Absent an update, the FBI keeps the records for 110 years.

Adding to arrestee’s difficulties are background-check businesses that keep public arrest records and mug shot websites that charge a fee to get a photo removed.

An arrest record can make it difficult for individuals when they apply for jobs, loans and housing. Among those affected are law student Jessica Keir, of Birmingham, Alabama, and her husband, John Keir, the story says. They were accused of criminal mischief in 2012, allegedly for keying a car, but they were acquitted at trial. Keir says she feared online mug shots were to blame for law firms’ reluctance to interview her for summer associate positions, though she was in the top 15 percent of her 1L class at Cumberland law school.

She and her husband paid about $2,000 to several websites to remove their mug shots, but the photos reappeared on new websites. Keir finally got a summer position with the Alabama Attorney General’s office; she has since transferred to the University of Alabama law school.

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