Is Your Juvenile Record Sealed?

Earlier this month, a New York City Police undercover officer killed an unarmed 26-year-old Brooklyn man named Patrick Dorismond. Hours after the shooting, at the direction of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the police department released information about Dorismond’s prior arrests, including information about an offense that occurred when he was 13 years old and resulted in a sealed juvenile court case. Mayor Giuliani argued that the public had a right to know. Aren’t juvenile records private?

New York’s Family Law Act quite clearly prohibits the release of information from a sealed juvenile case, like Dorismond’s, without the approval of a family court judge. The fact that Giuliani released Dorismond’s arrest record, rather than his court file, might have helped his argument in other states, where the law is sometimes murky about police files. But the New York legislature amended the Family Law Act to incorporate just this type of information in 1956.

Giuliani has argued that a dead person loses his claim to confidential juvenile records, but the legislature never spelled out that exception to its rule. (The mayor can’t be accused of libeling Dorismond, because the dead cannot be libeled.) Giuliani may soon have a chance to make his argument in court: This week, New York City Public Advocate and Giuliani nemesis Mark Green persuaded a state court to order Giuliani or his lawyers to appear next week and defend his actions.

New York’s policy is not unusual. Reasoning that youthful errors shouldn’t follow children into adulthood, most states either seal or expunge juveniles’ records. In 16 states, juvenile proceedings are assumed to be public unless the judge determines otherwise. Every state allows certain youthful offenders to be transferred to the regular court system and tried as adults. These proceedings–and their outcomes–are open to the public. In addition, 42 states have some provision for the names of juvenile offenders to be released to the media, if (for instance) the crime is particularly serious or the juvenile is a repeat offender.

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Explainer thanks Howard Synder at the National Center for Juvenile Justice and Professor Stephen Gillers of New York University Law School.