How Criminal Defense Lawyers Challenge Incorrect Disposition Information
How Criminal Defense Lawyers Challenge Incorrect Disposition Information
Criminal defense lawyers play a critical role in the criminal justice system by protecting the rights of the accused. One important way defense attorneys do this is by challenging incorrect or incomplete disposition information in their client’s criminal record. Disposition information refers to the final outcome of a criminal charge, such as whether the defendant was convicted, acquitted, or had the charges dismissed. However, disposition reporting by courts and prosecutors to state criminal record repositories is often lacking, resulting in incomplete records. This can unfairly hurt a defendant’s ability to obtain employment, housing, loans etc, so defense lawyers have an ethical obligation to ensure their client’s record accurately reflects the true disposition.
Why Disposition Information Matters
The disposition of a criminal charge is a vital piece of information that can have major implications for a defendant’s future. A conviction, especially for a serious offense, can make it much harder for someone to get a job, rent an apartment, obtain student loans, or receive other benefits. On the other hand, a dismissal or acquittal reflects that the person was not found guilty and was cleared of the charge. Having incorrect disposition data that wrongly indicates a conviction can unfairly punish the defendant and prevent them from moving on with their life.Unfortunately, studies estimate that disposition information is missing or incomplete for approximately 50% of criminal arrests nationwide. 1
There are several reasons for this:
- Prosecutors and courts fail to report dispositions to the state repository as required by law in many states. 2
This results in an arrest showing up without any final outcome.
- Dispositions are reported but aren’t matched up to the correct arrest charge due to differences in identifying information between the two databases. 3
- Clerical errors and lack of updated technology prevent timely and accurate reporting of dispositions. 4
Ethical Obligation to Correct Records
The American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct make it clear that lawyers have an ethical duty to correct inaccurate court records, even if doing so is against their client’s interests. Model Rule 3.3 states that lawyers shall not “knowingly fail to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client.” 2
In other words, if a defense attorney knows their client has disposition information missing or wrong in their criminal record, the rules say they must disclose this “adverse authority” to the court in order to correct the record. The ABA underscores that “the lawyer must not allow the tribunal to be misled by false statements of law or fact.” This duty applies even if it goes against the client’s wishes.However, defense lawyers still have a duty under Model Rule 1.6 to protect client confidentiality. They must try to fix inaccurate dispositions in a way that does not violate privilege or reveal confidential communications. This can be challenging, but is possible in most cases.
How Lawyers Challenge Incorrect Dispositions
There are several approaches criminal defense attorneys can take to remedy incorrect disposition data:
File a Motion to Correct the Record
One way is to file a formal motion with the court asking for an order to change the disposition information in the client’s criminal record. This motion should clearly explain how the data is inaccurate and needs to be updated to reflect the true outcome. Supporting documentation like court records or case documents should be attached as exhibits. Defense lawyers must serve copies to the prosecution and any other parties involved.If the motion is persuasive, the judge will issue an order to correct the record which can then be sent to the state repository. However, judges may be hesitant to change dispositions long after the fact without thorough proof of errors.
Send Letter Directly to State Repository
Instead of involving the court, defense attorneys can send a letter directly to the state criminal record repository requesting correction of their client’s disposition data. This is often the fastest and simplest way to fix small errors. The letter should identify the specific case, charges, and required changes, and provide documentation like court orders or docket sheets that prove the dispositions are wrong. If the state agency verifies the letter’s claims, they have the authority to directly update their records.
Negotiate with Prosecutor
Rather than fight in court, defense counsel can try negotiating with the prosecutor’s office to jointly request record corrections from the court or state repository. Prosecutors have an ethical duty to ensure justice, so they may cooperate to fix disposition errors, especially if given proper documentation. Their participation lends credibility when challenging disputed records.
For more extensive criminal record errors, or cases where charges were dismissed, defense lawyers may petition the court to entirely expunge (remove) the arrest and disposition from their client’s record. This is more complex than basic record corrections but ensures the client’s history accurately reflects the charges against them were dropped or invalidated. States have different laws on when expungement is allowed.
Pros and Cons of Record Corrections
Fixing incorrect dispositions can greatly help clients by removing unfair obstacles to getting jobs, housing, loans etc. However, there are some potential downsides for clients if their lawyer discloses adverse information against their wishes:Pros:
- Accurately reflects outcome of charges
- Removes unfair barriers to reentry
- Upholds ethical standards of legal profession
- Violates client confidentiality
- Against client’s perceived interests
- Risk of exposing unfavorable information
In most cases, the benefits outweigh the risks, especially since inaccurate records harm the integrity of the justice system. But defense lawyers should carefully weigh the specific circumstances of each case before taking action. Thoroughly explaining the situation to clients and getting their consent can help mitigate concerns about privacy violations.
Criminal defense attorneys serve a vital role in protecting defendants’ rights and ensuring fair treatment under the law. Given rampant problems with missing and incorrect disposition reporting, lawyers have an important ethical duty to try to correct inaccurate records prejudicing their clients. While this obligation creates some ethical tensions, conscientious counsel can employ various strategies to remedy errors in a way that balances client confidentiality with the pursuit of justice. Accurate disposition data is critical for fair treatment of individuals with a criminal record. By challenging incorrect information when possible, diligent defense lawyers can help remove unfair barriers to their clients moving on with life after an arrest or conviction.
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2020. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/sschis20.pdf
American Bar Association, Model Rules of Professional Conduct, 2022. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/
SEARCH, Report of the National Task Force on the Criminal Backgrounding of America, 2005. https://www.search.org/files/pdf/ReportofNTFCBA.pdf
DOJ, The Attorney General’s Report on Criminal History Background Checks, 2006. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ag_bgchecks_report.pdf