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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on June 28th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 16 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 16

Innocence lost

When criminal charges are dropped, how do the accused rebuild their reputations in the Information Age?

BY JEREMY THOMAS

Sandy Coupal has always loved animals, so much so that she converted part of her 40-acre ranch north of Santa Barbara into a sanctuary for creatures with nowhere else to go.

As her reputation grew, she took in chickens, show birds, cats, and a variety of other animals, eventually retiring to care for them full time. Some she adopted out; others she raised with the help of volunteers.


Rebuilding year:
Santa Maria resident Shevonne Harris was ultimately exonerated on a misdemeanor charge of non-sufficient funds. However, she said, having her name cleared hasn’t undone the damage her arrest caused to her reputation.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

Coupal’s rescue operation came to a halt on Dec. 2, 2011, when a consortium comprised of Santa Barbara County Animal Services, the Santa Barbara Humane Society, and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department swooped in on the ranch, based on information from an anonymous complaint.

“They came up to my property, and went through a locked gate without a search warrant,” Coupal explained. “They claimed it was not a search, but they had a helicopter flying over my head, taking pictures of my whole area.”

Eight days later, the agencies returned with a warrant, confiscating 445 animals, including quail, turkeys, and an alpaca. The creatures were taken to Animal Services facilities, where they were housed. A judge later ruled the initial inspection and warrant had been justified.

News of the seizure was trumpeted in the local press, picked up by national news wires, and distributed widely. On online message boards and comment sections, strangers accused Coupal of neglect, cruelty, and of being an “animal hoarder.”

“When they seized the animals, of course everyone thought I was guilty,” Coupal recalled. “Then I don’t come out and say anything because I didn’t know what to say. What do you say? Do I start groveling and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t do this and they’re awful?’ I had no idea what to do.”

In February of this year, prosecutors charged Coupal with two misdemeanor counts, alleging animal cruelty and failure to provide proper care to her animals. Coupal maintained her innocence. Her close friends stuck by her, but the impact of the news reports and the charges were almost too much to bear. She was sick for months, she said, and even had trouble eating.

“It was awful. Horrible,” Coupal said. “When I saw people I used to work with, I would hide. I would see them in the store and walk all the way around and out. I was embarrassed. I thought, ‘My God, these people are going to think I’m cruel, and I’m not.’ How do you fight for your reputation?”

In May, the District Attorney’s Office dropped both charges against Coupal, after she entered into a plea bargain with the county Public Health Department and the Humane Society. Under the terms of the agreement, Coupal would limit herself to 30 animals; under the condition, she’d allow Animal Services to periodically inspect her property. She’s also required to report any animal deaths and to provide food receipts and proof of veterinarian care.

Though prosecutors told the media the case was an issue of Coupal having too many animals—not being intentionally cruel—rumors of neglect persisted in the public. According to Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley, though her office is no longer pursuing criminal charges, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

“It wasn’t like the case was dropped because, ‘Whoops, sorry, we never should’ve been there,’” Dudley said. “There were suffering chickens in that case, and I think the result is better for [the] animals. I believe her heart was in the right place, but the actions were really a problem.”

Coupal admits she had no idea how many animals she had, but claims she never actively collected them. Even with the dismissal, she’s still dealing with the aftermath. Online, she’s read remarks accusing her of making a deal to avoid jail time and other condemnations. Coupal said prosecutors never had any evidence of neglect, and though she did sign a deal, she had intended to go to trial, but decided defending herself was costing too much money.

“The good part is that it got dismissed, but I realize that in the back of people’s minds maybe I was cruel,” she said. “It’s comments like that that kill you.”

Shevonne’s story

Coupal’s story provokes a number of ethical questions the media face every day in reporting on alleged crimes. While we have a responsibility to inform, oftentimes we have to balance the public’s right to know with the damage it might cause the accused.

In the eyes of Coupal’s Santa Barbara attorney, Robert Landheer, press releases and ensuing media reports, such as those in his client’s case, can contaminate jury pools and violate a person’s right to a fair trial.

 “You can ruin people’s reputations in a minute, but you can’t rebuild them again,” Landheer said. “It becomes one of those things, where it’s not only violative of people’s rights, but worse than that—let’s go from the basic assumption that people are innocent until proven guilty—there is immediately a stigma that is forever there.”

Some cases, like Coupal’s, generate more attention than others, but even in those barely creating a gleam in the public eye, the impact of an arrest can be equally devastating.

Ten years ago, Santa Maria resident Shevonne Harris worked as a legal secretary for the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office. She found herself on the other side of the law in 2004, when she was arrested and charged with non-sufficient funds on two personal checks totaling less than $130.

At the time, Harris was married to a man she claims would cash her checks at local supermarkets, causing hers to bounce.

“It never occurred to me that he could take my check and cash it,” Harris said. “They accepted them without identification. But, of course, they had my name on them.”

In an interview with the Sun, Harris produced copies of the stolen checks, showing that the signatures on them were clearly different than ones she’d signed. Harris said when she’d tried to show prosecutors the evidence, she was ignored.

Homeless, with two young children and with no money at the time, Harris pleaded no contest. She figured things would get sorted out later. In the meantime, she tried to find steady work, but was hesitant to apply for jobs requiring a background check. She believes her record caused her to be passed over for work on multiple occasions.

“I really didn’t have time to keep dealing with this, and I just figured one day I’d be able to straighten it out and I kind of forgot all about it,” Harris said. “That’s when I got arrested.”

Unbeknownst to Harris, there was a warrant out for her arrest for failure to appear in court on the misdemeanor. Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s deputies arrested her April 2, 2011, at the front gate of Vandenberg Air Force Base, where she was attending a prayer breakfast for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“Everybody who was driving in at the time could see me there in handcuffs,” Harris said. “What I had to go through that day—no one can give back to me.”

Harris was employed and had scheduled time off to have surgery. When she returned to work, she didn’t tell her employer about her legal problems; the incident happened long ago, she decided, and furthermore, she wasn’t guilty.

However, on April 11, 2011, Harris’ arrest appeared in the Santa Maria Times, with the following listing: “Shevonne C. Harris. Forgery. Checks. Access Cards. Misdemeanor Offenses.” After word of her arrest got around, Harris said, she lost her job, and she was afraid to be seen in public.

“All the people in the grocery stores know me,” she said. “I would laugh and smile and be myself, but I would still deal with it privately at home.”

Despite being out of work, Harris was told if she didn’t pay a restitution fee of $580 by Dec. 16, she’d have to serve 90 days in county jail. She feared the impact her incarceration would have on the custody of her young children. She scraped together the money, and the case was dismissed, but the charge would always be on her record—unless she did something about it.

On Easter Sunday of this year, Harris’ chance to clear her name finally came at church, where she approached District Attorney Dudley, and explained what had happened. Dudley immediately contacted Deputy DA Jerry Lulejian, asking him to meet with Harris. 

“It didn’t seem fair to me what I
had heard,” Dudley told the
Sun. “When Jerry heard everything she had to say, he pulled the report, and saw it was consistent with the things she was saying.”

Following the meeting, not only did Lulejian clear Harris’ record, he also returned the restitution she paid—the first time Dudley could recall her office doing so. Lulejian also issued Harris a letter officially exonerating her of any criminal wrongdoing.

How liable is the media?

Convinced the report of her arrest had misrepresented her case, Harris approached the Santa Maria Times in May of this year, requesting a follow-up story. A Times editor offered her a correction, which didn’t satisfy Harris.

“It affected my life greatly,” she said. “It
was unfounded, unnecessary, and did not have to happen.”

The Sun contacted Times Associate Editor Marga Cooley, who explained the paper’s policy in printing crime reports.

“The information published in our arrest logs is public information that is provided by the arresting law enforcement agencies and United Reporting Crime Beat News,” Cooley said. “People are interested in what’s going on in their community, and crime logs have historically been a part of that.”

Starting with the paper’s June 25 edition, the Times added a disclaimer to the print version of its arrest report, reading, “Those appearing in these listings have only been arrested on suspicion of the crime indicated and are presumed innocent.”

Numerous media outlets print daily or weekly crime blotters, while others choose not to run them for practical or ethical reasons. The Sun used to run crime logs every week, but decided to end the practice in 2006 due to the impracticality of following up on every case, and the impression of guilt it leaves on those who are eventually cleared.

More than 30 newspapers across the state rely on United Reporting for their crime logs. Ken Kiunke, bureau chief for United Reporting, said the company collects public records of arrests by sending its reporters to law enforcement agencies, and then forwarding the results to its syndicated subscribers. United Reporting doesn’t do follow-up on the arrests itself, leaving it to individual newspapers to decide how to handle the data.

“This kind of information, we’re not investigating ourselves, so we’re not running the risk of getting something wrong,” Kiunke said. “[Police] may have made an invalid arrest, but we’re reporting the fact that they made the arrest, not whether or not it was a good arrest or a valid charge.”

In Harris’ case and others, Kiunke explained, law enforcement agencies only provide an arrest code or a blanket category for the crime. The category doesn’t give specific information, but in looking under the details on the company’s website, someone can see the actual charges.

For people who have been wrongfully accused and want their names removed from the database, the company offers a free “opt-out,” available on its website or by phone. According to Kiunke, Harris requested her information be removed a few months after her arrest, and the company complied.

According to California Newspaper Publishers Association attorney Jim Ewert, when it comes to arrests, as long as the person was actually taken into custody, there’s no legal liability in simply reporting them.

“The underlying charge may not have been supported by sufficient facts, but the fact that the arrest occurred and that the arrest was based on specific charges may still be true,” he said. “Of course, truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim. It’s a bit of a conundrum.”

When arrestees are later exonerated, Ewert said, it’s up to the editorial staff of individual media outlets to figure how to best handle the situation.

“Newspapers report information that is the best information at the time they report it,” Ewert said. “Sometimes you find out later that they may not be as they were when we first reported them. Sometimes things just sort of fall through the cracks, and it’s really unfortunate.”

The dark side of access

The days of spending hours in dimly lit library basements, poring over microfiche records to compile a dossier on a person, are over. Many people agree that easy access to information is a good thing; but in an era when employers are increasingly using Google in lieu of background checks, some job seekers are finding their career opportunities limited, even when they’ve never been found guilty of a crime.

Despite being cleared of wrongdoing, Harris worries her arrest record might still come up in searches when she applies for housing or employment. In her case, she has an official letter clearing her name if questions arise. Others, however, aren’t quite so lucky.

According to Santa Barbara defense attorney William Makler, the Internet has created a whole new world—one in which records aren’t only out in the open, but also permanent.

“People have high expectations of what they’re going to get from the remedy of expungement,” Makler said. “They come to learn, as I always warn, that this does not remove it from law enforcement records, and it doesn’t remove it from the public domain.”

If wrongfully accused, arrestees can petition to remove, seal, or destroy the arrest record, Makler explained. While that may undo the damage as far as law enforcement is concerned, he warned, the private companies who sell the information to employers don’t necessarily update their records. Or—even worse—they might not operate under ethical principles or even state or federal law.

In cases where district attorneys reject referrals for charges by law enforcement, the arresting agency is required by law to update its records by referring to an arrest as a “detention.” Makler said he’s analyzed how often local law enforcement agencies actually follow the practice. He said only one out of four he’s investigated does so with any regularity.

Inaccurate or incomplete records can damage reputations, Makler said, particularly as employers more commonly conduct their own background checks online. Individuals can try suing, but once the cat’s out of the bag, the data is intractable.

“The enormity of the problem is just too much to fathom,” Makler said. “I don’t think someone who’s been arrested will ever fully recover from the damage that was caused by that one police officer’s decision to take them into custody.”

The Sun occasionally gets requests to remove information we’ve reported on in the past. However, with the growing Internet archive and Google’s caching of websites, does anything ever truly disappear from the Internet? Even if a person has been cleared of a crime, how is the data removed?

Recordsferret.com is a Wyoming company allowing customers to access data employers might bring up on a background check. According to its marketing director, Ariel Ozick, the company forbids employers from using the service in adherence to regulations in the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Though Google isn’t listed by the Federal Trade Commission as a consumer reporting agency, Ozick said, employers probably use it more than any other service—albeit surreptitiously.

 “In theory, if employers do a random check on you and find this weird criminal record from seven years ago, you might be able to do something about it, because they have to tell you,” he said. “Whereas legally, they’d probably have to tell you if they Googled you also. Do they? Probably not.”

According to Ozick, once Google logs negative information about you, it can be blocked from showing up on searches, but it’ll cost you; reputation management companies charge as much as $10,000 a month to remove results from Google’s first few search pages.

A more affordable solution—though one Ozick admits isn’t ideal—is to change your name, since employers aren’t searching with Social Security numbers. Ozick also suggests people Google themselves and use online records-retrieval services to ensure that arrests that should’ve been dropped don’t appear.

Harris’ arrest record was cleared by the Department of Justice, so it’s not likely to come up during legitimate background searches. Throughout her ordeal, she stayed positive with the support of friends. She feels the experience has made her more aware of her rights.

“A lot of times, people just need to open up a law book and see what their rights are,” she said. “If you’ve been wrongly accused of something, never give up fighting for your innocence and your reputation.”

Publicly maligned on a larger scale,
animal lover Coupal readily admits she used to assume a person had committed a crime if his or her name appeared in the paper. Now, she understands the frustration from the other side.

“Yes, we feel that people are guilty right away when we hear stuff,” she said. “We just judge people. It’s really sad, and I feel bad because I was like that too. It’s opened my eyes.”

Coupal intends to find part-time work and hopes her case will soon be forgotten. She recognizes articles about her will never go away, and some people will always believe the accusations. She’s decided, reluctantly, to move out of state.

“I could stay, but I’m really saddened by this,” she said. “I’ll try not to carry the baggage with me and just start a new life and get it over and done with. We’ll see what happens.”

Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas at jthomas@santamariasun.com.