In this blog post, Sam Holloway ‘24, student in LSC’s Safety Net Program, discusses how he helped a client fully clear her public record. This client had been absolved of criminal wrongdoing and her record had been sealed – but her reputation was still being threatened because of Internet media articles containing unproven allegations.
By using Massachusetts’s robust criminal record sealing laws to remove old CORI entries from public view, LSC’s Safety Net Project helps its clients toward a second chance. One in four Massachusetts residents has a formal criminal record, and the state’s Criminal Record Offender Information (CORI) database still maintains information on these individuals once their criminal justice involvement is over. Those records remain accessible even if charges were dropped before conviction and (in some cases) even for conduct committed as a minor. For this full quarter of people in Massachusetts, CORI records make it far harder to find stable employment and secure housing, regardless of what crime a person committed or how severely they were punished.
Clinical students at the Legal Services Center address this widespread and pressing need every semester. The Safety Net Project helps clients interact with various government programs — the “safety net” system — designed to help people out of their most vulnerable moments. While we helped various clients interface with the CORI sealing process, we also argued Social Security disability benefits appeals, conducted community outreach and advice fairs about a broad range of legal issues, and facilitated additional benefit applications like veterans’ healthcare. We received constant support and teaching throughout our work via the Veterans’ Law and Disability Benefits Clinic Seminar and the Poverty Law Workshop courses.
Through my work with one Safety Net Project client this spring, however, I saw how criminal record sealing still might not be the end of the story — and how lawyers must learn to embrace problems that don’t come with an instruction manual. My client, J*, was arrested as a minor on felony drug charges. After a criminal court cleared her of wrongdoing, another clinical student helped seal her record. But J approached us again this spring with a different but related problem: in addition to her now-sealed CORI record, at the time of her arrest, two online newspapers published articles about J’s case. After the Massachusetts justice system sealed J’s formal record, these articles stayed live on the internet, broadcasting unproven allegations about J’s dropped criminal charges on the first page of Google results for her name.
In practice, this “shadow criminal record” — detailed accusations of crimes for which J was never convicted — had the same negative effect as a “real” criminal record. After all, anyone requesting someone’s formal criminal record (like a prospective employer or landlord) will almost certainly Google search that person too. That put J in a bitterly ironic position. She did everything right: she was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, she followed proper procedures to seal her CORI, and after that record got sealed, she completed graduate school and became a professional. The justice system forgave her, and she moved on to great personal success, but the rumor mill nonetheless threatened the reputation J so tirelessly rebuilt.
LSC’s Safety Net Project doesn’t usually handle situations like this one, but J’s problem certainly fit the clinic’s mission. So my clinical supervisor gave me one of the first “no blueprint” tasks in my legal career: figure out what to do. And although my mind first went to “libel!” or “defamation!”, using dispute resolution strategies from our clinic seminar, I ultimately decided on a less “legal” way forward: writing a short, personalized letter to the editor-in-chief of each newspaper. With J’s input, I explained how the articles used unsubstantiated accusations to describe J’s non-convicted conduct as a minor; how Massachusetts already sealed J’s formal criminal record; and how these publications were all that stopped J from fully moving on. We weren’t threatening to sue anyone, preparing for a hearing, or filing a formal record sealing petition. By humanizing J and her personal growth, I hoped to help each editor appreciate the undue negative impact their stories ultimately caused. And sure enough, exactly as we hoped, both news outlets removed their articles from public search results within a couple of weeks.
J’s news article dilemma resolved quickly, but even that brief experience underscored LSC’s value both as a community service institution and a teaching organization. The clinic brings high-quality legal and practical representation to clients who otherwise can’t afford it, even in cases involving relatively unexplored legal issues (like J’s “shadow criminal record” problem) or in cases necessitating novel legal argument. From the moment I started in the Safety Net Project, I sensed LSC’s “do what it takes” attitude toward client service, reflecting lawyers’ two-part role as both legal counselors and general advisors. I therefore especially appreciated this chance for guided practice in the whole spectrum of services that attorneys must know how to offer, an opportunity uniquely available in the Veterans’ Clinic and Safety Net Project.