Whenever legislation is introduced, it is critical for lawmakers to consider the unintended consequences as well as the intended ones. Nearly every law has drawbacks, sometimes major ones, and well-intentioned legislators often fail to consider how their proposals could be more harmful than helpful.
That may be the case with a bill that was recently introduced for the sixth time by the current speaker of the New Jersey Assembly. The bill, if eventually passed, would make open arrest warrants public in an easily searchable online database.
The goal of the bill vs. the likely outcomes
Contrary to what you might assume, the stated goal of this bill is not to be “tough on crime,” but rather to help inform people who weren’t aware that they had an outstanding arrest warrant. This is a common problem, often related to unpaid traffic tickets or municipal citations that have gone unaddressed. The subjects of these warrants often don’t know about them until a police officer shows up to arrest them.
While the intentions of the bill are good, many critics say that making open arrest warrants public and easily searchable is a very bad idea, according to an article in the New Jersey Monitor. First of all, there are major privacy concerns. Anyone could search for open arrest warrants, including a boss, a landlord or a neighbor. And an open arrest warrant could technically be used as an excuse to fire or evict someone.
Second, there are accuracy concerns. Courts, like all human institutions, make mistakes. Someone may suffer damage to their reputation after being listed in the arrest warrant database.
Finally, we need to consider the fact that once something is posted online, it essentially becomes permanent. Even if an arrest record is cleared up or should never have been issued in the first place, it will likely be discoverable years later when that person applies for a new job, a loan or an apartment. It is embarrassing at best and damaging to one’s future at worst.
Is there a better solution?
According to a criminal justice reform advocate quoted in the article, an online database might be helpful as long as someone can only search for and access their own records. This would require more security and verification measures, but it would ensure privacy and greatly limit the damage of mistakenly issued warrants.
It’s quite possible that this bill won’t make it out of committee, or that it will be defeated in a larger vote. However, the same assemblyman has introduced the same bill six times in the last ten years, so the proposal doesn’t seem to be going away. Hopefully, those who understand the damage this bill could cause will continue to make their voices heard.