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In the past, the sealing of a criminal record in Oklahoma has been a generally rare occurrence.  While expungement of criminal records as allowed by law are more prevalent in the state, judges are more likely to be hesitant to draw fire from advocates for an open government by sealing a criminal record.  Despite this, there has been a greater trend of sealing that has swept through the state in the past year, and it has spurred lawmakers to begin drafting Oklahoma Senate Bill 1041, which would revoke the court’s right to seal a criminal record without specified authority.

In Oklahoma, criminal records were acceptably sealed when they related to juvenile cases or those cases involving medical or mental issues of the subject of the record. The new trend of sealing criminal records appears to be stemming largely from the need to hide the identity of witnesses to material fact.  In Tulsa County, judges are making the decision to seal the criminal history of those who have borne witness to homicide, with the argument that disclosing the individual’s arrest information would be detrimental to the ongoing homicide investigation.

While Oklahoma state law does allow for a material witness to be detained if they have been deemed a flight risk or if they are being uncooperative, this opens the door to other more concerning practices.  For example, a judge in Tulsa recently ordered the sealing of the arrest record of Susie Pauline Canady.  Canady had borne witness to a quadruple homicide and Tulsa Police had struggled to discern whether or not her statements were credible.  The sealing order came with the intent to protect the identity of Canady and preserve the integrity of her statements, which were still integral to the ongoing investigation.

While such actions may have been logical to investigators, it has given rise to other concerns regarding the rights of those in positions similar to Canady’s.  Canady was arrested on January 11, 2013, and her arrest and booking report were ordered sealed and no public record of her arrest or charges were disseminated.  As such, Canady’s internment was veiled in secrecy, and the Tulsa Police Department continued to maintain that no arrests had been made in connection with the quadruple homicide.  The Tulsa Chief of Police, Chuck Jordan, has made statements to quell concerns over Canady’s situation by publicly stating that they had not intended to mislead the public, and that the department had “misspoke” when stating that no arrests had been made.  Chief Jordan claims that the department meant to state that they had not arrested anyone suspected of involvement in the homicide.

Canady’s situation is not an isolated event.  In Tulsa Jail alone, there are at least five others being held for the sole reason that they are a material witness to an ongoing investigation.  Senate Bill 1041 would not allow for the sealing of a criminal record without the authority of Oklahoma state law or the Constitution.  It would also require an effective date and would give standing to challenge the sealing to any resident of the county in which the record is sealed.  If a judge seals a record without said authority, they may be subject to impeachment and removal.  The Bill was introduced by Senator Anthony Sykes is currently pending in the House.

Written by Record Clearing

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