Innocent until evicted. Or rejected by an employer.
by Tom James
Tenant advocates and lawyers representing landlords clashed in Olympia last week, arguing over a pair of bills that would expand tenant privacy rights —and one of which would also affect employee privacy.
Although different in scope, the two bills take aim at a single issue: whether or not records that don't prove guilt should be available on private citizens. One of the bills addresses privacy for tenants who are victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, expanding general tenant protections already in place. The other would more broadly seal most of a private citizen's judicial record from the eyes of employers and landlords, keeping private almost everything except crimes of which a person had actually been convicted.
"You're innocent until proven guilty," said Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, sponsor of the more sweeping bill. But, Moscoso said, in an age of instant Internet access to records of every brush with the law, "you're guilty by Google."
Moscoso's bill, HB1497, would make private any records of court or police actions against a person that did not end in the person being convicted of a crime. Included would be crimes of which a person was found not guilty, as well as charges that resulted in acquittals, pardons, or dismissals. The bill would also make it illegal for employers or landlords to ask about anything except convictions – with an exception for employees being hired to care for vulnerable adults or children.
A less-sweeping bill, HB 1529, sponsored by Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, would also protect records, but more narrowly, protecting only the records of victims of stalking, domestic violence, or sexual abuse. While substantial protections already exist for those records, Stanford told the House Judiciary Committee that they leave a gap.
Currently, the law allows screening companies to tell landlords if a applicant tenant is a victim of the crimes. The law also allows people registered as victims of those crimes to terminate leases without penalty to escape dangerous situations — and landlords are currently able to find out if a person has used that clause. Stanford's bill would keep both a person's victim status and their past use of the get-out clause private.
Additionally, similar to how Moscoso's bill would keep unfounded criminal charges private, Stanford's bill would keep landlords from finding out about any eviction motion that was thrown out or cancelled.
"Both of these bills are about making sure that people who are not at fault but who have been involved with the court system don't have that become a roadblock to them," Stanford said. "Becausue frankly they haven't done anything wrong."
After the comittee hearing, Moscoso said the similarity between his bill and Stanford's was a coincidence. Moscoso sponsored a similar bill in 2011. That bill never made it out of committee. Moscoso said he didn't have high hopes for this year's bill, either. Stanford, for his part, was more optimistic, and said that even if his bill didn't make it, a Senate counterpart had been getting more attention and would likely advance.
Judiciary committee chairman Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, wouldn't say what kind of a priority the privacy push would be for Democrats on the committee. The legislators themselves hadn't had a chance to talk about it yet, he said after Thursday's meeting.
American Civil Liberties Union of Washington's Shankar Narayan said the ACLU had submitted written testimony in support of both bills on similar grounds.
"We see lots of these people," Narayan said. "The consequences of a criminal conviction are what's helping to create an underclass of inviduals in america." The effect extends to noncriminal records, too, Narayan said.
Tenant advocates testified to similar effect during the hearing, saying that even an entry on a person's record that was simply unclear could become a "scarlet letter," making landlords turn applicants down in favor of "less complicated" applicants.
For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.