Fresh start blocked by court error

  • Article by: LORA PABST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 27, 2010 - 9:16 AM

Kyle Lewis' juvenile criminal record should have been sealed from public view. Instead, it hurt his job search.

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Kyle Lewis is trying to figure out what to do next after finding out that his juvenile record was publicly available on the state court website.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Kyle Lewis's youthful transgression wasn't supposed to follow him forever.

The 24-year-old has spent his adult years mentoring students, taking college classes and working full time. But after the latest in a string of prospective employers turned him down, Lewis finally found out what was haunting him: a robbery conviction at the age of 15.

Lewis's juvenile criminal record, which is supposed to be sealed, kept showing up in background checks because it was improperly posted on the state's public court website for anyone to see.

"I couldn't get a job and I couldn't figure out why," Lewis said. "One of the benefits of pleading guilty to the original charge was just to put it all behind me, move forward and know when I turned 18, I got a fresh start."

After Whistleblower inquired, a state court official confirmed that disclosing Lewis's record was a mistake. John Kostouros, state court spokesman, said the error may have occurred during a recent transfer of millions of court records into a searchable online database.

"When we did the conversions, this was a big issue we tried to pay a lot of attention to," he said.

Lewis' record has since been removed from public view. Kostouros said he didn't know how many other records were accidentally made public, but said he didn't think the problem was widespread.

That answer didn't satisfy Mark Haase, an attorney who works on records privacy issues. Haase's employer, 180 Degrees, is a Minneapolis nonprofit that advocates for ex-offenders who want to turn their lives around.

"I think the law's being violated," Haase said. "The fact that it's difficult or there are a lot of records shouldn't keep the law from being complied with. What they're dealing with here are people's lives."

Haase said steps should have been taken to determine whether other juvenile records were improperly released to te public.

Lewis decided to go public with his situation because he believed it would help others who have suffered from similar breaches of privacy. Even though his record is no longer publicly visible, Lewis said there's no guarantee it won't show up in another background check. He also wanted to share the story of how he overcame his past.

Court system an 'eye opener'

Lewis was 15 and hanging out with another teenager and a 20-year-old man in his Eden Prairie neighborhood when he said they decided to rob somebody. They walked to a nearby ATM and stopped two young women in a car. Lewis said he didn't know that one of his accomplices had brought a BB gun. The group got away with $20 and a cell phone, Lewis said.

He spent two months in the Hennepin County juvenile detention facility before agreeing to plead guilty to one count of aggravated robbery. Lewis said the incident was a turning point in his life, especially when the county prosecutor attempted to try him as an adult.

"That was an eye opener that told me I cannot do anything of this nature again," he said.

Because he was 15 at the time, Lewis' criminal conviction was supposed to be sealed. That's the case with most juvenile records, said Stacie Christensen, a state Department of Administration official who trains state agencies on data practices.

Christensen said it's important for government employees to ensure that private data are protected from the beginning, "because once it's out there, it's out there."

When Lewis returned to his sophomore year at Eden Prairie High School, he tried to repair his reputation. He said he was discouraged from playing on the basketball team, but instead of becoming bitter, he focused his energies on working with children. After volunteering at a local elementary school, he decided to become a teacher.

After high school, he attended Augsburg College for a few semesters while working full time but he had to leave school when he was laid off from his job at a bank. In recent years, he became suspicious when the job application process always fell through about the time employers ran a background check. Last fall, Lewis had the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension check his criminal history, but the record didn't show up.

Then, earlier this month, a software company that had rejected Lewis' job application e-mailed him the information it had found on the Minnesota courts website. Lewis didn't know what he could do. He called Hennepin County, but said he got passed around to several departments. He said his lawyer told him they should go back to court to ask a judge to make his record private again.

"It can be very debilitating," Haase said. "The state has already decided that this kid's record should not hold him back in the future, but now it's happened."

Even though he's been able to find work, including his current job as a personal banker, Lewis said he's prepared to answer for his juvenile past whenever he applies for a job. He hopes that someday, he won't have to.

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628

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