Last year I wrote about the Legislature's modifications to the Washington State juvenile court sealing laws, which make it easier for people to seal juvenile court records. This law went into effect in June 2014. The Legislature clearly stated the policy and intent behind the law:
“… it is the policy of the state of Washington that the interest in juvenile rehabilitation and reintegration constitutes compelling circumstances that outweigh the public interest in continued availability of juvenile court records. The legislature intends that juvenile court proceedings be openly administered but, except in limited circumstances, the records of these proceedings be closed when the juvenile has reached the age of eighteen and completed the terms of disposition.”
The King County Prosecutor's Office has filed an appeal to challenge the constitutionality of this law. Now, the State Supreme has to decide whether the juvenile sealing law is lawful, or whether people with juvenile criminal records must use a more difficult standard to seal juvenile court records.
The prosecutor's appeal involves the case State v. S.J.C., Case No. 903557. A young man committed a sex crime, was found guilty and complied with his punishment, and later asked the judge to seal his records. The judge agreed.
The prosecutor argues that the juvenile sealing law violates the State Constitution's requirement that all courts, and all court records, are presumptively open for public inspection – even juvenile records. The juvenile sealing law mandates that records must be sealed upon proof that the person has met limited statutory requirements. In contrast, when a person asks a court to seal non-juvenile records there is a presumption the records must be kept open and the person must meet what is known as the “Ishikawa” requirements. The person must establish unique compelling circumstances to justify sealing records, and prove that the need to seal records trumps the public's right to access to court records. Further, records may only be sealed for a specific time period, and the person must show there is no alternative but to seal the records to prevent the asserted harm.
The State Supreme Court has a history striking down laws that presume an automatic privacy interest in court records that deny public access. In Allied Daily Newspapers v. Eikenberry, the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring courts to redact from court records the name of sexual assault victims. In State v. Chen, the Court struck down a law that prevented public access to a criminal defendant's mental health exam. The Court wrote, “A statute cannot mandate privacy where the Constitution requires openness.”
The prosecutor makes the argument that the juvenile sealing law creates a ”categorical exemption” from the State Constitutional requirement of access to court records by allowing a person to seal juvenile court records without having to meet the same rigorous standards required in every other situation.]
There is a saying in law that bad facts make bad law. Here, it can be said that good intentions can make bad law too. While the prosecutor may have a logically sound argument, a prosecutor's “victory” will only hurt people our Legislature wants to help. The Legislature worked very hard to modify the juvenile sealing law. It sought input from many parties interested in the issue; including prosecutors. This appeal serves no real purpose except to condemn thousands of people to a life-long criminal history for mistakes made when they were very young.
If the State Supreme Court agrees with the prosecutor, it could become extremely difficult to seal juvenile court records. A person would have to meet strict requirements and overcome the presumption that juvenile records are supposed to be open for public inspection.
We hope the Supreme Court thinks very hard about the ramifications of accepting the prosecutor's argument. A decision is due any time.