The District Attorney of Oneida County (WI) has decided not to file criminal charges against forty teenagers implicated in a widespread sexting scandal in the Rhinelander school district. His decision was reportedly based on concerns raised by parents and others about the collateral consequences of a criminal record. In a joint press release, school officials and the local sheriff noted that felony charges could have limited students’ future employment prospects:
Although Wisconsin law does consider incidents such as this as felony offenses, and it does not have disciplinary alternatives for such offense, criminal charges were not filed against the students involved, which could be detrimental to the future of the students and, in turn, could be harmful to our community as these students will not be allowed to enter certain occupations
Under Wisconsin law, anyone convicted of a felony, no matter how minor, is permanently barred from obtaining over 100 professional licenses, and subject to many other adverse effects that may last a lifetime.
Instead of charging the students criminally, the school district is bringing in a Wisconsin Department of Justice special agent to give presentations to the students and parents about the seriousness of taking inappropriate photographs and distributing them on social media. Ten of the forty students who sexted on school grounds got one-day suspensions, and students who behavior violated the school athletic code were suspended for certain events.
The editor wonders whether such a resolution would be likely in an urban school setting.
Which is a better outcome for a defendant in a criminal case: a) dismissal of all charges; or b) finding of guilt with probation or fine? Although most defendants and their attorneys would without hesitation choose option a), the choice is not always clear cut for some young defendants in in at least one Midwestern state.
So why might a former client say that “I can’t get a job because the charges against me were dismissed“? Or ask “ Why didn’t my lawyer tell me to plead guilty?” How is there a potential advantage of a conviction compared to dismissal?
In Wisconsin, computerized court records make it easy for the public, including prospective employers, to see public records of court cases, including charges that have been dismissed. However, a statute (Wis. Stat. sec. 973.015) allows for certain records to be sealed, depending upon the defendant’s age and the classification of the crime. However, the statute does not allow for sealing records in cases that resulted in dismissal, so they remain accessible through computerized searches.
Therefore, if a defendant is greatly concerned about the potential effect of the record on future employment (or other effect on reputation), an expunged record may be preferable to a public record of a dismissed charge. The defense attorney should at least be aware of the options and explain them to the client, rather than assuming which option the client would prefer. This example also shows that it is critically important for defense lawyers to be aware of the relief that may be available to avoid or mitigate collateral consequences.