Boca Raton Domestic Violence Arrest Shines Light on Harmful Publication Practices

A local news website has earned the kudos of our Boca Raton domestic violence defense attorneys for doing three things few other outlets would:

1. Removing a story that was especially harmful to the subject, who as it turned out had been absolved of her alleged crime;
2. Using the incident to educate people on the harms of domestic violence;
3. Changing its policy on the publication of domestic violence arrests.
It’s awful enough to be slapped with a domestic violence charge, especially when the allegations are exaggerated or downright false. To then have that information splashed across a news website, accompanied by your photograph and possibly your address, can end up severely ruining your reputation and possibly damaging your career and future job prospects.

We understand and fully support our Florida Sunshine Laws that allow the public – including journalists – to access a wealth of official information regarding everything from land records to arrests.

But for journalists, there is a level of discretion about what to publish that is sometimes abused, particularly when it comes to arrests – and the Internet is a big part of the problem. Because arrests reports are public record, there is nothing against the law about a reporter reading, writing and publishing what is contained therein. However, news judgement sometimes goes out the window if editors think a story or brief will garner a few more clicks.

Even just a few years ago, newspapers rarely spent much time on domestic violence arrests – unless they were serious or involved a prominent figure – because to do so would consume valuable print space and wouldn’t serve much purpose. However, the Internet has allowed many news sites to publish arrest “galleries,” in which the public can click through people’s mug shots, names, ages, charging information. Media cutbacks mean there is often no context to this information, no analysis for why the public might need to know this.

So there is little of value for the public, but there is a great amount of harm inflicted on those who are “featured.”

What many news outlets don’t recognize – and what we applaud Boca News Now for seeing – is that domestic violence arrests are unique in that they don’t often require the same burden of proof threshold as other crimes. That is, if police respond to the site of a domestic disturbance, someone is almost assuredly going to be arrested. It often comes down to who has more bruises or who is a smoother talker.

And even though a lot of times, those charges are either reduced or dropped altogether, the arrest information remains up on these news websites regardless of the case’s resolution, resulting in tangible and significant harm to those involved.

That’s what happened here in this case. A woman contacted the Boca News Now newsroom, tearful and desperate for her arrest information to be removed from the site. She was finding it impossible to gain employment with the information still up on the web. As it turned out, the state attorney’s office had determined the 21-year-old woman had merely been defending herself against an abusive boyfriend. The office declined to prosecute and a judge expunged her record.

It took this kind of extreme case for the publication to note that the way in which it was publishing domestic violence arrests – often with little follow-up information or context. With this realization, the paper instituted a new policy: “Unless there is a compelling reason to do so, we will no longer report domestic violence abuse arrests,” particularly for those under the age of 25, the editor pledged. The editor went on to say that if the paper did decide to publish a domestic battery arrest, after careful consideration, it would later remove that content upon receiving notification that the charges had been dropped, the case dismissed or the record expunged.

We’re not asking reporters not to do their job, but we do wish more publications would recognize their power and adopt this same measure of caution.

If you are charged with a crime in Palm Beach or Broward counties, contact the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert, a Partnership of Former Prosecutors, for a free consultation to discuss your rights. Call 1.888.5.DEFEND.

Additional Resources:
From tears to new policy: Boca Raton Battery Arrests, April 26, 2013, Staff Report, Boca News Now
More Blog Entries:
Florida Court: Miranda Rights Warning Not Required for Barricaded Suspect, March 25, 2013, Boca Raton Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog

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