Expungement and Dante Servin: Cleaning up records is only fair for those who were never convicted

Former Chicago Police Detective Dante Servin has asked that his criminal record — his arrest and charge after shooting into a crowd and killing 22-year-old Rekia Boyd — be expunged.

Plenty of Chicagoans are angered by that notion, but Servin’s request is not out of sync with the trend in criminal justice, here in Chicago and across the country.

Expungements — the complete removal of a person’s criminal file from the public record — are becoming increasingly common, even in some cases automatic, when there is a charge but no criminal conviction.

Expungements are a trend driven by the argument that if a person has not been convicted of a crime, only charged, that record should not haunt him or her for life, making it harder to get a job, continue an education, rent an apartment or get a loan.

The same thinking has led to “ban-the-box” laws in states such as Illinois, which prohibit putting a checkbox on job applications that asks if applicants have a criminal record. It’s also behind the concept of court sealings, in which the contents of a person’s criminal record, including convictions for some crimes, remains in court files but can be viewed only by court order.

We don’t know if Servin will prevail in his quest for an expungement. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office has objected.

Chicago Sun-Times. SOURCE: Illinois State Police

But two points seem important here:

  • Servin was found not guilty in 2015 on a technicality. The judge said that Servin was not guilty of the offense for which he was charged — involuntary manslaughter — and that if a charge was brought, it should have been for first-degree murder. The real injustice was how Servin was charged and acquitted.
  • In the age of the internet, expungement will get Servin only so far. It will be a moral victory to his thinking, but won’t much matter practically. Type Servin’s name into Google and it all comes rushing back — how he shot over his shoulder while off-duty into a crowd; how Boyd, who was talking with friends, was shot and died.

It will follow him around all his life.

Even for people whose cases never make the news, lawyers say there often is a residual record lingering somewhere, even after expungement. But an official clean record still can be a pathway to a job or an apartment.

As much as Servin’s pursuit of expungement may appall some Chicagoans, it’s important to keep in mind that the overall trend toward cleaning up the records of people who have never been convicted is a good one.

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