House bill would clean files of false criminal allegations

Police: Measure would create more problems than it would solve

Posted: Tuesday, April 14, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Criminal records would be expunged in cases where defendants are found "beyond a reasonable doubt" to have been wrongly accused, under a recently introduced bill.

The House bill is unlikely to see action before the state legislative session ends Sunday, but will remain on the table when lawmakers reconvene in January.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, and inspired by the case of a Fort Richardson soldier, Cole Rothacher, who was accused of a rape that never occurred. Democratic Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, signed on last week as a co-sponsor.

"Conceptually, it's the kind of thing we want to not do to people," Gatto, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said of false criminal allegations. "Think about how you can destroy a person's life."

Anchorage police said the bill would create more problems than it would solve.

Lt. Dave Parker said that if information were purged, for example, police would have no way to pull complete information about the people they encounter. Even without convictions, previous charges can affect everything from sentencing to how police gauge a suspect's patterns, he said.

"We have to be cautious of a knee-jerk reaction to one incident," Parker said. "In fact, there was a charge made, and a person was arrested. That's historical record. There's no way that you can change that."

Rothacher's case began when his ex-fiancee, Elisa LaCroix, 20, accused him of raping her at knifepoint. LaCroix, who was nearly nine months pregnant, told police Rothacher, 24, also punched her in the stomach, threatening to kill the child.

Rothacher is a military policeman who aspires to a career in law enforcement. He was charged with sexual assault and spent almost two weeks in custody before authorities concluded LaCroix's story was false and backed up by planted evidence.

Rothacher was released and LaCroix was charged with filing a false report and tampering with evidence. Rothacher has since deployed to Afghanistan.

After his release, Rothacher said he feared that being listed as a suspect in a rape case may have destroyed any chance of landing a law enforcement job.

A falsely accused person can have a law enforcement record sealed but not expunged under current law. The information can still be accessed for certain reasons, including law enforcement agencies looking at potential employees.

State law allows people to deny the existence of their sealed records, and the bill now under consideration in the House Judiciary Committee would extend that to expungements, according to Gatto.

"If you don't have it expunged, you have to say yes" on an application, he said. "And as soon as you do - as soon as you do, there's nine other people that are just as qualified as you are, and they're just not going to take you."

Parker said an application in Rothacher's case, for example, would note he had been charged with the crime but also say he was fully exonerated. That fact would not count against him, Parker said.

"We have a record, and to change that record by expunging it will do no one any good in terms of hiring and that kind of thing, but also it hides stuff from investigators that we may need later on," Parker said. "In that bill it says 'destroy.' I don't think we should destroy anything."

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