City Limits: The Rap-Sheet Trap: Mistaken Arrest Records Haunt Millions

Melissa wasn’t aiming terribly high: She wanted to be a substitute teacher in New York City’s school system, a job that would combine her passion for education with a decent paycheck. Yet her modest goal had to go on hold thanks to the inability of an upstate court to verify that her almost 20-year-old shoplifting arrest was long ago resolved when she agreed to spend 200 hours in community service.

Kevin Cleare, having served his time for a robbery committed while he was homeless, wanted a chance to go to school and train for a job. His ambition was thwarted as well when three open arrests—criminal encounters that never even occurred—somehow appeared on his official record of arrests and prosecution, or “rap sheet” as it is universally called.

Then there’s Richard Norat, who decided after sitting behind bars for 20 years for crimes to which he pleaded guilty that he’d become an exterminator. That’s a trade that will always be in demand, he figured. It’s also one that requires a license, and when Norat looked at his own record of encounters with the criminal justice system, he saw a batch of crimes wrongly listed as open, even though they were all more than 20 years old. His cockroach-killing plan quickly stalled.

That kind of collision with faulty court and law enforcement record-keeping is encountered by tens of thousands of New Yorkers every year. They involve cases that should have been sealed, but were not; arrests that were voided but are still listed as active; warrants that were answered but somehow never vacated; and cases never pursued in the first place, but which stubbornly cling to records like old chewing gum.

They are mistakes that come with major consequences, frustrating the best efforts of people trying to turn their lives around, leading to rejections by schools, employers, lenders and landlords. And legal records are littered with them. By one estimate, an astonishing 2.1 million New York state residents have mistakes on their criminal justice histories, errors that must be painstakingly corrected one by one, in a complicated, time-consuming and sometimes fruitless effort.

A society that prides itself on the rigorous prosecution of those who break the law is stunningly slipshod and careless when it comes to keeping those records straight. That’s the finding of a team of reporters at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism who spent three months interviewing people caught up in the trap of rap-sheet errors, those who try to help fix them and those in charge of the records themselves.

The investigation found that, despite the epic size of the problem, few funds are directed at correcting those record mistakes. There is also no clearly marked path to guide those attempting to do so. In fact, the agencies where those errors likely originated—police precincts, prosecutors’ offices and courts—are often not only unaware of their own role in creating those potholes, they are actively disinterested in filling them.

‘What are you doing here?’

When Kevin Cleare, accompanied by a paralegal from one of the few organizations that aid those trying to repair their records, went to police headquarters at One Police Plaza to try to track down the source of the mistakes, he was directed to an office that handles computerized arrest records. Officials there were baffled even at the nature of their request. “How did you get in here? What are you doing here?” they were told, recalled Sebastian Solomon, the advocate from the Legal Action Center who accompanied Cleare to the office. (See “The 7-Year Quest to Fix 1 Skewed Sheet.”)

Melissa has endured her own Kafkaesque journey through the bureaucracy. A Masters in education candidate at Columbia University, she knew that the city’s Department of Education meticulously examined the backgrounds of teaching applicants. With the help of her own guide from another group, the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions in Brooklyn, she obtained a copy of her rap sheet. Although Melissa had been assured at the time of her arrest that the record would be sealed once she’d completed her community service, it was still there, minus any details on status or disposition. A call to a court clerk in Poughkeepsie in Dutchess County, where the arrest had been adjudicated, brought a reassuring response: There was nothing pending, she was told. So Melissa went ahead with her teaching application. A few months later, she was told she couldn’t qualify for a certificate. Her arrest was still open.

Like many we spoke with, Melissa asked that her real name not be used. She did so for the simple reason that, if she can ever straighten out her arrest record, she’d like to put the episode permanently in her past, where authorities had long ago promised it would stay if she complied with the rules and did her community service. So far, she’s had no such luck. She’s made three trips to the Poughkeepsie courts, paying small fees on each visit to obtain copies of old records. None of them show the disposition of the case. Without one, the education department’s Office of Personnel Investigation won’t budge on her application.

Richard Norat had better luck digging his way out of the trap he found himself in after completing his prison term, but he needed a lot of help. His first post-incarceration job was with The Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing, and Able, a program that trains recently released convicts. When he described his career goal, job counselors directed him to the Community Service Society, which also aids those trying to correct criminal record errors. [CSS is a funder of City Limits.] Still, it took Paul Keefe, a senior staff attorney there, months of wading through old records, along with repeated visits to court to straighten out Norat’s rap sheet. When Norat presented himself in criminal court at 100 Centre Street, the judge looked at him askance when she saw his 20-year-old record. “What brings you back from the dead?” she asked. Keefe was able to obtain several more dispositions for cases that should’ve been logged as closed long ago, and forwarded them to state officials who compile rap sheets. Norat finally won his exterminator’s license in November.

Most people don’t find out about rap-sheet mistakes until there’s a problem. That’s what happened to Juan Carlos Guzman when he returned in October 2013 to New York after visiting his native country, the Dominican Republic. Guzman, 40, had lived in the U.S. since the age of 9 and had obtained lawful permanent resident status. But immigration authorities detained him at the airport and held him for months thanks to a pair of outstanding robbery felonies that showed on his record. Guzman was 14 at the time he committed the robberies, and he served a year of incarceration to pay for his crimes. Since he was under 18, he sought and was granted designation as a youthful offender. A “YO” adjudication, as the designation is known in courtroom lingo, was supposed to be sealed. But when immigration officials looked, the old cases were listed as open. The culprit was likely simple human error, Guzman’s lawyer surmised.

“There’s an enormous amount of cases going through the system, and there’s one cranky clerk sitting there jotting stuff down on a folder,” says Jennifer Friedman, an attorney from The Bronx Defenders, a legal assistance group. “I think that’s how it happened.”

Clerks might have good reason to be cranky. State budget cuts have sharply pared the workforce responsible for handling court records since 2010. “We have fewer clerks and clerical personnel doing the same amount of work,” says Justin Barry, the chief clerk for New York City’s criminal courts. A budget report issued in 2013 by state court administrators noted that the cuts had resulted in “delays in processing court documents, frustrating the timely disposition of cases.”

In Guzman’s case, once the original records were dug out of the archives they showed that authorities had literally missed a red flag: Stamped on the outside of his criminal case folder, in big, bold letters, was a reminder: “YO Sealed.”

No one accountable

There is no precise accounting of how many records contain the kind of errors that sidelined Melissa, Cleare, Norat and Guzman. But each attempt to quantify them has arrived at astonishing figures. When the Legal Action Center examined 3,499 rap sheets of people who came looking for help in 2013, it found that 30 percent of them had at least one mistake; some contained several. If the percentage holds true of the 7.1 million criminal record histories generated by state agencies, that means there are some 2.1 million people with rap-sheet errors, the group found.

But the number could well be higher. Youth Represent, a group that works with young people in both the criminal and juvenile justice systems, reported finding errors in more than one out of three of the 800 cases it examined in 2013. And a survey by The Bronx Defenders of its own clients found a higher error rate yet of 60 percent.

The vast scope of the rap-sheet errors dilemma became clear to Martin Horn when he served as New York City’s commissioner for correction and probation under Mayor Bloomberg. In that post, he regularly encountered people passing through the city’s criminal justice system burdened by inaccurate data on their records. The task of correcting them, he says, has long been an orphan.

“Nobody owns the problem, and no one is accountable for fixing it,” says Horn, who now teaches at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “And pretty much the system says to the individual that it’s your responsibility to fix it.”


By CUNY investigative team

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