Friday, February 7, 2014
Access to Wisconsin's online court records database soon could be limited. Indeed, much to the chagrin of some open government advocates, the Wisconsin legislature is considering a bill that would prevent online access to court records in cases resulting in dropped charges or not guilty verdicts. The bill, of course, is an attempt to shield people who have been charged but not convicted of crimes from the potential misuse of their records--certainly a legitimate concern. However, restricting online access to those records might be foolhardy. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the approach of the bill was "fundamentally wrongheaded" because the solution to some people misusing information should not be to cut off access to that information for all people.
Limiting access to CCAP would create an opening for private businesses to create their own, for-profit databases with all court records, Lueders said. That would mean the information would still be easily available, but people would have to pay for it.
If CCAP is turned into nothing more than a "compendium of guilty people," it would make it appear that every prosecutor in the state gets it right every time. That would be a "distorted view of what is actually happening in the courts," he said.
I'm inclined to align with those who think that citizens' access to information about the government should not be restricted. Such information, it seems to me, is particularly important when the government threatens the civil liberties of citizens--as it does during a criminal trial. The misuse of the information at issue here is certainly contemptible, but hiding this information places more power in the hands of the criminal justice system. This, I believe, is unacceptable.
The title of this post comes from this Journal Sentinel article, which begins:
The public would lose ready access to court records about people who were found not guilty or had charges against them dropped under a bill a bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to move through the Assembly.
The bill — which received a public hearing Thursday — would make sweeping changes to the state's popular online database known as Consolidated Court Automation Programs, or CCAP. The site, which receives nearly 8 million hits a day, for years has been run by the state courts with little oversight from the Legislature.
The site is widely used by landlords, employers, journalists and curious citizens. Some lawmakers have raised concerns that people misuse or misinterpret data on the site because it includes information about almost all court cases, including ones in which defendants have been found not guilty or prosecutors have dropped charges. The database also includes details on pending cases, in which people have been charged but courts haven't ruled on whether they are guilty.
Under the bill debated Thursday, cases would be removed from CCAP within 120 days after a criminal case or charge has been dropped, the defendant has been found not guilty or the case has been overturned on appeal and dismissed. Charges that were dropped but read into the record so they could be considered for charging purposes would remain on the site.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has spoken favorably of the concept, saying last fall cases involving those who have been found not guilty should not remain on the site.
Advocates of open government oppose the changes, arguing court officials have invested years of work in determining what information should be included on the site, including notifications that defendants are innocent until proven guilty and employers can use information on the site only in limited circumstances when deciding whether to hire someone.
But those who want to make changes to the system argue dismissed charges in the system can be misused and make it harder for people to get jobs or rent apartments.
CRL&P related posts:
- NYT Reporter Takes First Amendment Fight to High Court
- California law enforcement arrest operator of revenge porn site
- Qualified Immunity and the First Amendment Right to Record Police