Court: Judge can decide whether to seal case

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BOISE (AP) — A judge has the discretion to seal a convicted sex offender’s case because his criminal record is hurting his finances, the Idaho Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

But the appellate judges made clear in their ruling that they weren’t recommending a Bonner County judge actually seal the case — only deciding he has the power to do so, if he chooses.

The appeal was brought by a man calling himself John Doe, who was convicted in 1990 after pleading guilty to felony battery with intent to commit rape. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors dropped another felony sex crime charge. After he served four years in prison, Doe was released on parole.

A few years later, a judge found Doe wasn’t at risk of re-offending and said the man no longer would have to register as a sex offender.

Two years ago, Doe asked 1st District Court Judge Steven Verby to seal his criminal case, saying public access to the information was causing him economic harm. Doe contended he hoped to become a fire marshal in his community, but a background check disclosing his conviction might hurt his chances. He also said some of his current employer’s clients refused to let him work on their projects when they discovered he was a felon.

The state’s attorneys didn’t oppose Doe’s motion. But the lower court judge turned him down, saying a rule that allows judges to seal some cases to prevent financial harm wasn’t designed to protect criminals from their own histories. Verby said he therefore lacked the discretion to seal the case.

Simply put, the “consequences of having committed a felony may include financial or economic loss,” The judge said.

In his appeal, Doe argued the lower court was wrong in finding the economic harm rule didn’t apply to criminal defendants. The Idaho attorney general’s office opposed Doe in the appellate case, with Deputy Attorney General Russell Spencer contending the economic harm rule was designed to protect businesses and other parties with financial interests, not felons.

Doe was correct, the appellate judges found: The rules are broadly written and don’t specifically bar a criminal defendant from asking for their history to be sealed, and lower court judges do have the authority to decide such matters.

“That is not to suggest, however, that the motion must be granted here or in any similar case,” Judge Karen Lansing wrote for the majority. “On remand, the district court will have broad discretion to determine whether Doe’s claim of economic harm is so compelling as to outweigh the overarching public interest in disclosure.”

Chief Judge David Gratton agreed with the majority, but wrote that he believed the rule was designed to seal records to protect businesses, not criminals, from suffering economic harm.

Doe’s attorney, Michael Palmer of Coeur d’Alene, was out of the office and didn’t immediately return a phone call from The Associated Press.

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