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First-time or low-level offenders in Minnesota often can catch a break by having criminal charges dismissed or reduced if they meet certain conditions.
But in thousands of cases, the state's public court data system failed to register that change, an omission that could torpedo a person's chances of landing a job or housing, and a problem officials have spent months trying to resolve.
These critical omissions involve "interim disposition" cases, in which a person usually has a year to meet probation terms, resulting in the dismissal or reduction of a felony or gross misdemeanor to a lesser charge. That, in turn, may persuade an employer, landlord or banker to give consideration to someone with a "softer" criminal history.
University of Minnesota law professor Steve Simon, who also serves as a public defender, warned several judges and court employees about the potential issue last summer, but only Hennepin County has completed research of its records. The county reviewed 96,560 interim disposition charges entered into the state website since the Minnesota Court Information System was created in 2007 and found 2,551 that did not show a dismissal or reduction of charge.
A computer glitch was to blame in most instances, and nearly all of the cases have been corrected, said Hennepin County Judge Mark Wernick. The county is sending letters Friday to people who had erroneous records.
Wernick expects that other judicial districts will find similar mistakes, but the overall scope of the problem still is unclear. The state court information office said it has added coding to facilitate the tracking of some cases and is testing programs to fix others.
A person might never know whether an incomplete record was the cause of, say, a loan rejection or the denial of a professional license renewal. Furthermore, many people probably are unaware that their record was incomplete.
"There can be no rehabilitation of a person who has broken the law, if our criminal record system inaccurately describes that person as having a conviction when that person has earned the right to have the conviction or charge removed," Simon said.
"With such inaccuracies, citizens who have made a mistake but have shown they can be law-abiding will forever be locked out of being a constructive contributing member of our society."
Simon said some public defenders have spoken of clients being told they could get a job if the felony on their record was a misdemeanor -- when, in fact, the charge had been reduced but their files didn't show it.
Each year, approximately 1.6 million cases of all kinds are entered into the Minnesota Court Information System, a statewide district court management tool used by judges and court staff as they process cases. The system is available to the public via www.mncourts.gov or by visiting a courthouse.
Not a clean slate
Wernick stressed that even if defendants meet all the probation conditions for an interim disposition, the initial charge remains on their record. He could only speculate about the impact a dismissal or reduction will have on an employer or an application for a license.
"These dispositions are akin to a pardon or some act of forgiveness by the state," he said. "But with each disposition the person acknowledges responsibility for their conduct in some way. It's not about wiping the slate clean or hiding the crime."
There are several kinds of interim dispositions: a continuance for dismissal, stay of imposition and stay of adjudication. Each is processed differently; several require the record to reflect a guilty plea or conviction. Once probation requirements are met, a file should show the dismissal or charge reduction.
It was a fluke that Simon, who handles several hundred cases as a public defender each year, learned about the website's problems from a probation officer. He did a quick review of 10 cases and discovered that one didn't show a change in the charge. With the help of a law student, he plowed through more cases going back seven years and found at least 25 more that hadn't been updated.
In Ramsey County, chief public defender Pat Kittridge said a preliminary examination of a specific type of interim disposition case has uncovered at least 15 inaccurate files, but fewer resources will mean a longer period to completely resolve the issue.
The Minnesota Council on Crime and Justice has done several studies on how employers treat the application of a potential hire and found that even an arrest record had a negative impact, said former Hennepin County Judge Pamela Alexander, president of the council.
No chance to explain
"Many employers said they didn't even know the difference between an arrest and conviction," she said. "They probably wouldn't notice if a case was dismissed, but the person trying for a job might not even get a chance to explain the situation face-to-face."
Simon said Hennepin County deserves much credit for taking immediate action when told about the problem and investing hundreds of hours to review thousands of interim disposition cases. Led by research director Marcy Podkopacz, county staff did an initial database search of the 96,560 charges and then narrowed the problem cases down.
At that point, each case had to be reviewed by hand, which may have entailed getting the paper file from an off-site storage facility and eyeballing the scribbled notes of a prosecutor.
Of the incomplete cases, about 75 percent were the result of a faulty statewide computer program created in 2010 that "interfered with criteria we typically use to know when to dismiss or reduce cases," said Wernick. He said that any error wouldn't affect how defendants were treated when they appeared in court in future cases because a judge or prosecutor should have noticed the mistake.
Minnesota has one of the better court record systems, said Simon. John Kostouros, director of the state's court information office, said the judicial branch is committed to maintaining an accurate and complete case record system. They have several ongoing efforts, including regular data quality reports, automated procedures to prevent errors, proactive efforts to identify data quality errors and training and policies to help staff and judges ensure data accuracy.
Wernick said of the current efforts in Hennepin County: "The public expects our records to be as accurate as humanly possible."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465