Debt Paid

When a defendant completes his sentence, he’s said to have paid his debt to society.  Well, that was what we used to say, anyway, before the days of registries and the perpetual underclass we’ve created to make sure that no one who has ever done anything wrong will get a chance.  For the children, you understand.

In the blawgosphere, however, criminal defense lawyers are occasionally given the opportunity to put their principles to the test.  Society at large may be unforgiving, but we argue otherwise.  And we have an opportunity to put our beliefs into action.

An email came in the other day requesting that I remove an old post about a case that named names.  It wasn’t a demand.  There was no claim of inaccuracy.  It was a simple request, couched in terms seeking understanding.  You see, the case against the person named in the post has long since been completed, and he’s moved on with his life.  Yet, his name on the interwebz brought up this unpleasant episode. He wanted to put it behind him, to not spend eternity perpetually haunted by it.

This was hardly the first time somebody wanted me to take down a post.  I’ve gotten many demands, often couched in threatening terms, by people claiming that what appeared here did terrible things to their reputation.  The most well-known of these is Rakofsky v. Internet.  A more playful demand came from faux internet cop, Jim Donahue, who was subsequently pinched for playing a cop in Broward County.  And then there was Mimi Coffey’s “do it for my children” demand. My response to all was “bite me.”  I don’t take kindly to threats.

The purpose of writing, aside from my internal interests, is to be informative while making a point.  There comes a time, however, when my point (not to mention my internal interests) are less important than the damage of being forever associated with the worst experience of one’s life on the internet.  The internet is forever, unless some intervening force makes it go away.  While a judge may impose a sentence of years, after which a defendant can emerge from the darkness of prison and breathe free air, the internet never forgets.

It took me mere seconds after reading the email to make a decision.  My post about the fellow was a good one, accurate and pointed.  It was extremely relevant to what we do, discussing the risks we take in the zealous performance of our duty, and the inherent conflicts between our role as attorney and the limits of the law on how far we could go in the protection of our clients.  It was a good post.

It was also a post that would certainly hurt the person named by reminding everyone who read it what had happened, and impair his ability to move forward in his life.  Who was I to sentence this person to perpetual infamy on the internet?  Who was I to deny him the ability to move on after he paid his dues?

The post was immediately removed.

While I had no hesitation in doing something that I believed was right, there is a nagging aspect to removing a post, that I am engaged in revisionist history.  What happened, happened.  What was there one day was disappeared with the press of a button, and no one who would come to see it will ever find it again.  If someone read it and, for whatever reason, wanted to read it again, there will be no explanation for why it no longer exists.

Journalists don’t take down their articles after a sufficient length of time elapses, so that the people named can go back to their lives without the story hanging over their heads.  We can go into archives from a century ago and still read about what some guy long dead did to some other guy similarly long dead.  While it’s hard to harm a dead person, what of their legacy?  Is it limited to the bad thing they did that got their name into the newspaper?  There likely won’t be much written about how they were nice to dogs and children.

Before the internet, one had to do some serious legwork to find old stories about people. Memories fade and yesterday’s news was replaced by today’s.  With search engines, everything is today’s news for most of us, lacking sufficient prominence to be replaced by media fascination with our every movement and utterance.  We tend to be characterized by our worst moment rather than our best, or even our most mundane.  It’s the unusual that gets reported, and the unusual that will live on Google in infamy.

Having written a great many posts, over a lengthy period of time, this issue has come to the forefront, testing my resolve that people who have paid their dues to society deserve to put their worst moments behind them and move forward.  Maybe I’m wrong to make posts that I once thought worthy of writing disappear because of this belief, but I made a decision and pressed the button.

As the blawgosphere, and the internet, matures, new questions arise about how we should handle the impact of what we do on others.  I’ve made my choice, at least this time.

8 comments on “Debt Paid

  1. John Neff

    I am working on a recidivism study and that has made it painfully obvious that the internet has made expungment a futile enterprise.

  2. SHG

    As the wealth of information grows on the internet, combined with growing belief that all information should be available and there is no longer any information that should be confidential, there will be no escaping one’s past.  As employers routinely search people, and those with criminal histories won’t be able to obtain employment, they will be left with few options to lead a lawful life.

    And this assumes they find the right name, and don’t misattribute wrongdoing to an innocent person.

    We’re screwing ourselves with too much information.

  3. j a higginbotham

    What about just changing the name? [People could still Google the event though and find out more.]

  4. SHG

    I’ve made changes in the past where I replaced named with initials, but as you note, it’s still given away by the surrounding details, and it feels dishonest to tell a story without providing complete information, preventing a reader from factchecking my facts or doing any additional research.

  5. John Burgess

    It seems, then, that the only solution is for the person with the blighted name to change that name.

    Even that’s not perfect, as records of name-changing are likely public as well, but perhaps not so obvious.

    Changing the name in a blog post once it’s already been published doesn’t really do much beyond require a couple more clicks. Resources like the Internet Archive (aka Wayback Machine) defeat attempts to re-arrange or delete history.

  6. TomH

    Just on the topic of the “debt being paid,” The thing that most surprised me when I first learned about it, was mandatory post-release supervision. So even once your debt is paid, you have five years of probation that is not probation. Constitutional, no doubt because, at least for the past few years, the Judge has to include it in the sentence, rather than the Dept. of Probation just hitting one with it once one has completed one’s maximum sentence.

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