News and Tribune

Clark County

November 7, 2011

New Albany native fights to clear his record

Michael Paul Ross says one mistake has haunted his career

INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Paul Ross isn’t a convicted felon, but he’s spent seven years and about $10,000 trying to prove that’s so.

Along the way, the New Albany High School graduate has been fired from two jobs after background searches produced flawed criminal records, then rehired after providing the evidence to clear his name.

Ross, who’s working on a master’s degree in social work, describes his experience as tough, but also hopes it has value.

“If I can help anybody else get through what I’ve been through, it will be worth it,” he said.

Ross, 29, may be the classic case of why a new state law restricting access to criminal records may be harder to enforce than legislators hoped. The law allows people charged or convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes to petition the court to restrict access to their records, if the person remains out of trouble.

Last week, Ross told a legislative study committee that a class C felony robbery charge filed against him when he was 20 stayed on his record for years — and can still be found on a publicly accessible state website — even though it was later reduced to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct.

Ross said the new law doesn’t go far enough to make sure records obtained by third-party vendors that sell the information to prospective employers are accurate — and that it could cost him even more dearly in the future.  

“I feel like I’m going to be paying forever for a mistake I made a long time ago,” Ross told commission members.

Ross was invited to speak to the commission by one of its members: State Sen. Greg Taylor, an Indianapolis Democrat who co-authored the restricted access bill.

Ross admits to the mistake he made: In 2003, he shoplifted video games from a store in Clark County. His arrest, he says now, was a good thing: “I was in with bad crowd. If I hadn’t gotten arrested, I might have been headed for something worse.”

Initially charged with robbery, Ross was offered a deal: He could plead guilty to a felony theft charge that would be removed from his record and reduced to a misdemeanor if he stayed out of trouble. After 18 months on probation, that’s what happened, said his attorney, Nicholas Stein.

“Criminal justice is supposed to be about rehabilitation,” said Stein, a former prosecutor now in private practice in New Albany. “We all make mistakes. He learned from his.”

But as Ross told commission members Wednesday, the state and federal record-keeping agencies that are tapped by prospective employers and private vendors that do background checks didn’t have the information that accurately reflected how the felony charge was resolved. Ross had to hire Stein to help him resolve the situation.

Stein blames it on the “red tape of getting arrest and court records updated in a timely fashion. It’s information that comes from several sources — law enforcement agencies and county courts — and goes out to a multitude of record-keeping agencies.”

Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart, who’s worked with Ross and Stein to correct Ross’ record, said Ross’ situation isn’t all that unusual. He said the national crime information system routinely accessed by local prosecutors often has incomplete information.

“There’s a hole in the system,” Stewart said.

Ross was tripped up by that hole earlier this year. Hired as research assistant at a state university, he was fired — and escorted off campus by security guards — after a background check done by a private vendor reported he had a felony conviction. Ross was rehired days later after providing the paperwork to correct the situation.

It was the second time in less than two years that he’d been fired, then rehired.

“It’s been stressful,” Ross said.

Ross had hired Stein to help him erase the past, but he said he decided to go public after hearing about Taylor’s bill.

“If I can help unburden the load of worry from anyone else who’s in a similar situation, it’s worth it,” Ross said.

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