The bill, sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, would also allow some people convicted of crimes to have their records expunged, after a period without a subsequent conviction. The bill won't become law unless it's also passed by the House and signed by the governor.
"We're the only state left in the Union where you can be totally innocent and you still have a record," Bedford said.
Bedford's bill would allow people with misdemeanor arrests, if they've been cleared of a crime, to file to have the record of their arrest sealed. People with misdemeanor convictions could apply for expungement three years after they complete any sentence served for the crime. Domestic violence convictions would require a five-year wait.
People with felony arrests and felony convictions, could also apply to have their records sealed, though lawmakers added a number of amendments Thursday that would limit the kinds of felonies that could be expunged. No one convicted of a sex crime could have any record expunged.
At 45 states have some form of criminal record expungement, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Advocates for an expungement bill say the record of an arrest can travel with someone though life, limiting their job opportunities.
Many of those people are completely innocent, Bedford said. He used the example of a carload of young men who are arrested when police discover marijuana in a car.
"All of them are going to get arrested," he said. "Eventually, one of them is going to own up to it." The other three, he said, shouldn't carry the stigma of the arrest.
The bill passed 26-3 in the Senate, but only after senators made extensive revisions. Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, was among the lawmakers who expressed misgivings.
A former prosecutor, Taylor said district attorneys do need to know, and know quickly, if a defendant has a record of arrests. Even an arrest without a conviction, he said, can lead to information about a defendant that is relevant to a case.
"In cases like sexual assault, sometimes the victim isn't willing to go ahead with the charge," he said. "It's still relevant."
Taylor proposed an amendment that would ban expungement of both arrest and conviction records for violent felonies. The amendment passed. Senators also approved a number of other changes, including a requirement that circuit courts report the number of expungements and expungement requests to the Legislature.
The 26-3 vote was a rare moment of bipartisan agreement in an overwhelmingly Republican Senate that, over the past three years, has rarely passed major proposals by Democrats.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he's trying hard to work with both sides of the political aisle.
"Before the session, I said I'd try to have as little controversial legislation as possible," he said.
Bedford's bill had the support of all three senators from the Anniston area. Marsh and Sen. Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga, voted for the bill, according to Senate records. Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, said he supported the bill but missed the voice vote because he was negotiating with another senator on a separate bill at the time.
Marsh's signature legislation for 2014 is the so-called "revolving door" bill, which would ban legislators from lobbying either house for two years after they leave office. The bill is a reaction to the handful of lawmakers who resigned to pursue other jobs last year.
The revolving-door bill was expected to come up in the Senate Thursday, but Marsh said he needed more time to work with Democratic Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma to deal with some of Sanders' proposed changes.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
HOW THEY VOTED
A "yes" vote would approve expungement of some criminal records.
- Del Marsh, R-Anniston: Yes
- Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga: Yes
- Gerald Dial, R-Lineville: Did not vote