Justin Stineman, 23, of Lititz, Lancaster County, was arrested on a charge of possession of a small amount of marijuana but not convicted.
York Daily Record
The information is public record. But these news releases can stay up indefinitely on the internet — even if people are never convicted of a crime.
For almost 36 straight hours, Justin Stineman said, he lived and partied like a rock star.
Stineman, 23, a local rapper from Lititz, Lancaster County, who performs under the name Nexus The League, said his parents were away in Italy. So he decided to play a show and host an after-party, which finally wrapped up on Jan. 22, 2018.
Next, Stineman said, he and others dropped his friend off at work in Harrisburg at 7 a.m. Stineman said he was falling asleep on the way back. Later, he said, he went to take a 10-minute nap in the car, which was parked across from his home on East Lincoln Street.
When Stineman woke up, two hours later, he said, “it was pretty much the whole squad at my house.” He tried kicking some weed that he had under the seat. But that didn’t work. Lititz Borough police arrested him on a charge of possession of a small amount of marijuana.
Stineman said he had to perform 25 hours of community service, attend several drug and alcohol counseling classes and pay a $250 fine. The case was later dismissed. But more than 2 1/2 years later, a news release about his arrest — and his mugshot — remain online.
“It’s public shaming,” Stineman said, “in a sense.”
A USA Today Network review has found more than 500 news releases from 2013 to 2020 that include mugshots for possession of marijuana and related offenses throughout Pennsylvania.
The information is public record. But these news releases can, in some cases, indefinitely remain on the internet and continue to affect people in various ways — even when they were never convicted of a crime. And while the state Legislature has passed criminal justice reform measures such as Clean Slate that automatically seal certain nonviolent convictions after a time, the law does not cover news releases and police blotters.
‘It ended up being a total conundrum’
The USA Today Network review focused on Crimewatch, which is a website that many police departments use in Pennsylvania. At least 506 of the 544 cases have made their way through the criminal justice system, according to an analysis of court records.
Here’s what happened:
- In at least 272 cases, or about 53.8%, people were convicted of at least one charge. Almost no one received jail or prison time.
- The outcome was unclear in 53 cases, or about 10.5%.
- The USA Today Network could not find a court record for 71 cases, or about 14%, which suggests that the charges were dismissed or expunged. That could’ve happened after people completed some sort of diversionary program.
- Eight cases were dismissed. Two other people successfully completed Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, a diversionary program for first-time offenders that’s not an admission of guilt, court records state.
- People ended up receiving a citation in 100 cases, or about 19.8%.
Stineman said he had difficulty finding a job after his arrest.
Lititz, he said, is a small town. Everyone knows everyone. And word gets around quickly. As a person of color, Stineman said, he feels that he’s already looked at there as “some sort of lesser being.”
Kolton James said he also felt like he was thought of in a different way after Annville Township police arrested him on a charge of possession of a small amount of marijuana and posted a news release about the case.
At the time, James worked at a jewelry store. He said he lost customers.
People, he said, shared the news release all over Facebook.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, is there any way I can make them delete that post?’” said James, 21, of Cleona, Lebanon County, who now works at a warehouse.
“Literally, everyone’s going to see it. My job’s going to see it. My family’s going to see it,” he added. “It ended up being a total conundrum.”
The inclusion of his mugshot, he said, made it seem “like I killed somebody.” James said people associate the pictures with criminals.
“Like, no. I’m not dangerous. I was just smoking a blunt,” said James, before correcting himself. “I didn’t even get to smoke it.”
Prosecutors later withdrew the charges. James was accepted into Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition in a separate case.
When Manor Township police arrested Josh Janes on charges of possession of a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, he said his friend later told him, “Hey man, your name and face is on the internet with these charges.”
Janes said he’d apply to jobs and wouldn’t get them. Some employers didn’t explain the reason for not hiring him. Others, he said, told him it was because of the criminal charges.
“They posted my picture. I guess that’s public record. It’s not unlawful,” Janes said. “Still, they could’ve let me go.”
Janes, 22, said he wouldn’t have been arrested in some other states for that amount of weed. He said he was a teenager and had fun.
Eventually, Janes said he had to move and relocated to Clearwater, Florida. Now, he said, he has his own place near the water and a car. He rents trucks out to people and works as an assistant manager at a grocery store.
“Maybe I got arrested for a good reason,” he said. “It’s so much nicer here.”
‘It’s in the interest of the public to know what’s going on’
Police departments have different approaches about when to post news releases and mugshots for arrests, with some selecting to publicize almost every case while others pick and choose.
“’Why not?’ would be a better question,” said Manor Township Police Chief Todd Graeff, who stated that the department posts about everyone who gets arrested, citation and above, on its Crimewatch page. “It’s a transparency of what’s going on, and it’s what the people want, at least the majority,” he added.
In the past, Graeff said, the department received complaints that it wasn’t being open and sharing enough information.
Graeff noted that the information is public record. He said he believes that “it’s either all or nothing.” That’s the fair way to do it, he said.
Upper Southhampton Township Police Lt. Craig Rudisill said the department’s procedure is to post all arrests for misdemeanors and above out of fairness on its Crimewatch page.
But Rudisill said he doesn’t share the news releases about drug offenses and DUIs on Facebook.
If a case is expunged, Rudisill said, he takes down the news release. Crimewatch, he said, then automatically deletes the post and shares on Facebook and Twitter.
In an email, Lititz Borough Police Chief Kerry Nye said the department posts all arrests on Crimewatch.
If people have their record expunged, Nye said, the agency removes the information. The issue, he said, is when the press reports on a case but later doesn’t take it down.
On a case-by-case basis, Nye said, the department removes information — even if there hasn’t been an expungement. He said he wasn’t familiar with Stineman’s case, but that he should contact police if he wants to have his information removed.
Meanwhile, West Hempfield Township Police Chief Lisa Layden said the department considers public safety and interest before posting a news release about an arrest.
Layden said her philosophy is to “think about why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
“Unfortunately, there’s no cut and dry, ‘This offense, not this offense,’” Layden said. “But that’s what we base it on — whether there’s a reason the public should know about something like this, versus just throwing everything out there.”
Layden said anyone can take a screenshot of anything. Once something is posted on the internet, there’s no way to make sure that it’s 100% been deleted.
The Carlisle Police Department is constantly looking at best practices across the United States and trying to evaluate the way it conducts business, Sgt. Dave Miller said.
Miller noted how the agency has changed the way that it releases information throughout the years, from typing up news releases about every arrest and making the records available to the press at the police station, to posting them on the internet.
Several months ago, Miller said, the department stopped sharing all news releases about arrests on Facebook. He said there’s been discussion about waiting to post them until the court case is finished, too.
Police, he said, will take down news releases if people have completed a diversionary program or if they’ve cleaned up their act and are concerned that future employers might see the post.
“We’re not doing it as some kind of punishment. We’re not doing it to embarrass anybody,” Miller said. “But quite often, it’s in the interest of the public to know what’s going on.”
Police officers are not out there specifically looking to make arrests for marijuana possession, Miller said. But they don’t make the laws, he said, and it’s still a crime in Pennsylvania.
“What we’re doing right now is based on feedback we’ve gotten from the community. The more people seem to be wanting to know about the crimes and wanting to know about the offenders, than the segment that are worried about it hurting somebody’s reputation,” Miller said. “Every community is different.”
Waynesboro Police Chief Jim Sourbier said he’d been considering ending the practice of posting all mugshots.
He said he believes in full disclosure, and the department would continue to put out news releases about arrests. But Sourbier said he sometimes wonders about the added value of the pictures.
Sourbier said just because someone has been arrested and charged with a crime doesn’t mean he or she is a bad person.
“An individual who makes a mistake is arrested and charged,” Sourbier said. “Once you have fulfilled that penalty that has been imposed upon you by the justice system, you should be able to get along with your life.”
“The photograph just seems to add a dynamic to that — I guess I’m leaning towards not liking the permanency of it,” he added.
Since that interview, Sourbier said in an email that “reflecting on the intended purpose of the release, inclusion of a photo does not substantial enhance the value of that information.”
The department, he said, will continue to post photos of missing and wanted people.
‘Expungement in the age of social media is clearly never going to be perfect’
The Legislature has recently taken up measures to reform the criminal justice system, including passing Clean Slate, which automatically seals certain nonviolent convictions after 10 years as well as arrests that do not end in convictions.
But the laws for sealing and expungement — that’s a different legal process in which a criminal record is permanently and completely removed — do not cover news releases and police blotters.
State Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland County, who was one of the co-sponsors of Clean Slate, said a number of reporters have asked about the issue.
“It is kind of a catch-22,” Delozier said. “We can’t certainly take back something that has been reported.”
Delozier noted that the government can’t force the press to take down news stories under the First Amendment. But many cases won’t receive publicity. The law, she said, helps in a majority of situations.
The York Daily Record/Sunday News and many other news organizations make decisions about what criminal cases to cover and would rarely report on charges as minor as possession of a small amount of marijuana. The newspaper often updates stories if informed that charges did not result in a conviction.
Gannett, which owns the York Daily Record and the USA Today Network, has stopped publishing mugshot galleries, stating that ones “presented without context may feed into negative stereotypes and, in our editorial judgment, are of limited news value.”
Clean Slate was “a historic and groundbreaking piece of legislation” to even guide through the legislative process, said state Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, the House minority whip and a co-sponsor of the law.
Since it took effect in 2019, more than 34 million cases have been sealed from the public’s view, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
Harris said he views the legislation as one step in a long march toward addressing criminal justice reform. The U.S. legal system is founded on the principle of innocent until proven guilty. He said he believes that law enforcement should stop posting mugshots and noted that the digital footprint does pose an issue.
“I think that we can look at legislatively how to address those things so we’re sure that the end goal of Clean Slate is reached,” Harris said.
In her experience, sealing and expungement are “generally extremely helpful,” said Jamie Gullen, supervising attorney for the Employment Unit at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.
Gullen said she sees how news releases that remain up online can be harmful, but that doesn’t undo most of the benefits of these laws. She said their clients rarely lost some kind of employment opportunity because information popped up on Google.
Not everyone, she said, has had a news release or story written about their arrest. Gullen said she’s found that a vast majority of employers conduct criminal background checks that use official sources — versus doing random internet searches.
Pete Kratsa, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said coming up with the perfect system for expungement is “like trying to stick your finger in a dam with a million holes.”
“The fact of the matter is, generally speaking, expungement in the age of social media is clearly never going to be perfect,” Kratsa said. “It’s just impossible with cases that receive publicity.”
Kratsa said diligent defense attorneys will advise their clients about that fact and tell them to be wary of questions on employment applications. The safest response, he said, is for people to answer honestly and explain what happened.
Police departments, he said, have been reasonable and taken down news releases when people called and told them that, for instance, prosecutors dismissed the charges.
ALSO OF INTEREST: Court tosses Lebanon County’s ban on probationers using medical pot
‘Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’
In a different criminal justice reform measure, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who serves as chairperson of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, has encouraged people to apply for expedited pardons for nonviolent marijuana possession or paraphernalia convictions.
The board recently voted to recommend 26 pardons to Gov. Tom Wolf for his approval, said Christina Kauffman, Fetterman’s press secretary, in an email. The governor is the only person who can grant the final pardon.
The pardon process is imperfect and ineffective, but it’s the only one that’s available until there’s a legislative solution that clears all of these records, Fetterman said.
In 2019, Fetterman visited all 67 counties as part of a listening tour about the legalization of recreational marijuana, which he supports. He said it’s long past due, calling prohibition “logically, financially, morally and ethnically indefensible.”
Fetterman said he thinks about the tens of thousands of individuals who are needlessly and punitively introduced into the criminal justice system. That’s in addition, he said, to how people of color are over-represented in arrests for marijuana possession. The USA Today Network’s analysis of news releases found that at least 52% of people were white, 33.6% were Black and 13.2% were Hispanic.
To compound that with posting a mugshot, Fetterman said, “just begs the questions as to why are we expending millions of dollars in resources and damaging what amounts to hundreds of thousands of people’s records to maintain the prohibition of a plant that has zero-known overdose deaths in medical history.”
“The internet is forever. When you float that publicly, you’re harming that person long after any kind of criminal punishment — and something as silly as marijuana prohibition,” he said. “It’s insult to injury.”
Fetterman said he doesn’t put any weight behind the argument that the community wants to know about crime. He said he doesn’t think people are sitting around the kitchen table demanding to know petty marijuana cases.
“I’m firmly on the side of, ‘Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,’” Fetterman said. “It just serves no purpose other than to shame somebody.”
Contact Dylan Segelbaum at 717-771-2102.
About the data:
The USA Today Network started with a question: Why do some police departments post news releases — with mugshots — for petty crimes?
To explore the issue, we decided to look at one type of crime. That’s why we focused on news releases for possession of a small amount of marijuana and possession of marijuana. We pulled them from Crimewatch because it’s a platform that many police departments use across the state.
(We included cases that contained related charges, including possession of drug paraphernalia and traffic offenses. But we excluded some others that didn’t seem to go as hand in hand — for example, if they included charges such as criminal mischief.)
Next, we built a database. We then used Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System Portal to try to determine the outcome of these cases.
Because information about race is incomplete on the docket sheets, we referenced data from the 2010 U.S. Census. If more than 50% of people with the same last name reported that they were Hispanic, that’s what we went with in the database.
Finally, we reached out and interviewed people who had news releases put out about their arrest, police chiefs, attorneys and lawmakers.
The following list shows the Top 10 police departments, by number of news releases for possession of marijuana and related offenses, that appear in the USA Today Network’s database:
- The Susquehanna Township Police Department (Dauphin County): 81
- The Fairview Township Police Department (York County): 68
- The Steelton Borough Police Department (Dauphin County): 50
- The Waynesboro Police Department (Franklin County): 31
- The New Holland Police Department (Lancaster County): 26
- The Upper Southampton Township Police Department (Bucks County): 25
- The Chambersburg Borough Police Department (Franklin County): 25
- The Manor Township Police Department (Lancaster County): 20
- The Carlisle Police Department (Cumberland County): 19
- The Middletown Borough Police Department (Dauphin County): 17
- The Quakertown Borough Police Department (Bucks County): 16
Crimewatch: People can submit requests to take down posts
In an email, Matt Bloom, CEO of Crimewatch, said it’s a content delivery platform and takedown technology and doesn’t control what law enforcement shares on the website.
Police departments that are using Crimewatch, he said, have more control over the information existing in perpetuity on the internet. The platform’s propriety technology scrubs photos from the web and removes posts from search results, he said.
Bloom said the press can refuse to take down information about a case. But if people go through a diversionary program and have their record expunged, for example, they can submit paperwork and a $20 research fee and that gets removed from Crimewatch, he said.
The fee is in place to prevent abuse, he said, not to generate revenue.
Because Crimewatch partners with the press and encourages them to share information from the platform, Bloom said, “you would think that they would be writing about police departments that don’t use our technology” and “creating pressure for more adoption.”
Law enforcement agencies that are sharing mugshots on social media or on their websites are “creating an impossibility for anyone to clear the content from the web, and causing further problems for them personally.”
Crimewatch recently introduced a feature that will automatically remove older posts after a set period, he said.
“Can you imagine a world where law enforcement can snatch people off the streets, detain them indefinitely and have no obligation to share that information with anyone?” Bloom said. “That is a fundamental threat to our democracy and we are dangerously close (if not already) living in that world.”
Freedom of information is a fundamental right, he said, and the Legislature is already threatening that availability for everyone
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