N.Y. Court: Media Outlets Don’t Have to Delete Stories When Charges Nixed

By | February 2, 2015

A Connecticut woman’s claims that media outlets libeled her by refusing to delete stories about her arrest after charges were dismissed were rejected by a federal appeals court on Jan. 28.

The ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan pertained to the August 2010 arrest of Lorraine Martin. The charges were dismissed five months later and the arrest was deemed to have never taken place according to the state’s Erasure Statute.

In an opinion written by Judge Richard Wesley, the appeals court said a lower-court judge was correct to dismiss the lawsuit, which claimed libel, negligent infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. Local newspaper reports online quoted police as saying Martin was arrested after officers confiscated 12 grams of marijuana from her Greenwich, Connecticut, home.

The ruling by the three-judge panel acknowledged that the consequences of a criminal arrest are wide-ranging and long-lasting, even when someone is later exonerated or the charges are dismissed. But the judges said Martin misunderstood the effect of the Erasure Statute when she concluded that it made it factually false to say she was arrested.

The appeals court said the law bars the government from relying on police, court or prosecution records in a later trial and prevents judges from citing a deleted arrest to enhance a sentence for a later offense.

“The statute creates legal fictions, but it does not and cannot undo historical facts or convert once-true facts into falsehoods,” Wesley wrote. “Here, the uncontroverted fact is that Martin was arrested on Aug. 20, 2010, and that the reports of her arrest were true at the time they were published. Neither the Erasure Statute nor any amount of wishing can undo that historical truth.”

The 2nd Circuit said reasonable readers understand that some people who are arrested are guilty and others are not and that charges against some individuals are eventually dropped.

Martin’s attorney, Ryan O’Neill, said they are disappointed and are considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.

O’Neill said it should be left to a jury to decide the case.

“These stories, because of the way the Internet operates, are perpetually fresh and available on the newsstands,” he said. “There’s a reason these things are kept out there: because it attracts a lot of readers, notwithstanding that it’s old news.”

He said other news publications had in the past agreed to delete old stories or update them when circumstances change.

Martin had sued the Hearst Corp., Southern Connecticut Newspapers Inc. and Main Street Connect LLC over stories that appeared on the Internet, including accounts in the Connecticut Post, Stamford Advocate, Greenwich Time and News 12 Interactive.

Lawyers for the media companies did not immediately return messages for comment.

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