As Arrest Records Rise, Americans Find -2-

By Dow Jones Business News, 
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John and Jessica Keir, of Birmingham, Ala., have tried various means to combat their arrest stigma. In 2012 the married couple was accused of criminal mischief for scratching someone's car with a key. They were found not guilty at trial.

In January of last year, Ms. Keir, a law-school student, googled herself. "My mug shot was everywhere," she recalls. "I was just distraught."

Though she was in the top 15% of her first-year class at Cumberland School of Law School in Birmingham, she says about a dozen law firms turned her down for summer work. Since she rarely made it to the interview stage, she feared her online mug shots played a role. Eventually, she landed a summer position at the Alabama attorney general's office.

The couple says they paid about $2,000 to various websites to remove their mug shots. It didn't work, Mr. Keir says. New mug-shot sites seemed to appear almost daily. Keeping up with them all was "like playing Whac-A-Mole," says Mr. Keir.

Ms. Keir, who is finishing her law degree at the University of Alabama, has been using Facebook, LinkedIn and Google to create enough positive Internet traffic to try to push down negative information lower in any search-engine results.

Meanwhile, her husband believes he has been caught up in a separate quagmire. Earlier this year Mr. Keir was hired by Regions Bank as an information security official. Weeks later, he says he was let go from his $85,000 job for allegedly lying on his application.

The 35-year-old Mr. Keir says his firing resulted after failing to disclose his recent arrest record as well as a number of traffic violations during his teens that had branded him as a "youthful offender" in Alabama. He says he didn't lie on his application, and only recalls being asked about any criminal convictions.

A spokeswoman for Regions Bank, a unit of Regions Financial Corp., says the company couldn't discuss individual personnel matters, but says the bank sends applicant fingerprints to the FBI as part of criminal background check and asks candidates to answer questions about previous criminal charges and convictions.

Arrest issues don't necessarily abate with age.

Late last year, Barbara Ann Finn, a 74-year-old great grandmother, applied for a part-time job as a cafeteria worker in the Worcester County, Md., school system.

"I was a single woman on a fixed income. I was trying to help myself," she recalls.

Along with the application came fingerprints and other checks--a process Ms. Finn dismissed as mere formality. After all, she had lived in the area since 1985, had worked in various parts of county government and served as a foster parent. Her background had been probed before.

So she was surprised by the phone call she received from the school district. Her fingerprints, she says she was told, had been run through both the state and FBI criminal databases. She was clear in Maryland, but the FBI check matched her prints to a 1963 arrest of someone with a name she says she doesn't recognize.

Barbara Witherow, a spokeswoman with the school district, confirms that Ms. Finn had applied for employment and that there were "valid reasons why" she wasn't considered.

Ms. Finn says she believes her problem might trace back to a 1963 episode when she and a girlfriend had gone to a clothing store in Philadelphia. The other woman began shoplifting, she says. Police took both of them into custody, Ms. Finn recalls, but she was released.

"I never heard any more about it and never thought any more about it," says Ms. Finn.

Michael Lee is executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity's Criminal Record Expungement Project and has been working on Ms. Finn's behalf for months.

The challenge, he says, is expunging a record no one can find.

An arrest record can only be removed if the local court system notifies the FBI that it should be taken out of the file. In Ms. Finn's case, the local authorities say they can't find the original record.

A Philadelphia District Court document obtained by Mr. Lee and reviewed by the Journal says Ms. Finn was never charged. A Pennsylvania State Police spokesman declined to comment.

Mr. Lee has asked for another background check from the state to try to put the matter to rest. Says Ms. Finn: "I don't want to die with a criminal record."

Write to Gary Fields at gary.fields@wsj.com and John R. Emshwiller at john.emshwiller@wsj.com

Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires


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