innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, September 22, 2005

PA Internet court records would be limited

Associate Press

HARRISBURG -- The Pennsylvania court system is giving the public two months to comment on a draft set of rules that will determine how much of its records will be made available on the Internet.

The proposal would give Internet users basic docket information about criminal cases but prevent them from seeing the names of victims, witnesses or jurors. It would keep defendants' dates of birth and exact street addresses out of view.

David S. Price, a staff lawyer who chaired the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts committee that drafted the proposal, said the panel studied how courts in other states and in the federal system have balanced openness with concerns about privacy and security.

"We really did think it struck the balance appropriately," he said.

Basic information about criminal cases is currently available through the state court system's Web site for county courts in 55 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. The new proposal would apply to county-level cases as well as criminal records within the appellate and magisterial district court
computer systems.

Access to the original paper files at courthouse clerk's offices won't be affected. Dates of birth and exact street addresses will be listed electronically on public-access computers at the courthouses.

Norristown lawyer Robert C. Clothier, a media-law specialist, said privacy concerns are increasingly being used to justify denying people information about governmental actions. He criticized some of the proposed restrictions, including the ban on making jurors' names widely available.

"Someday I imagine that all judicial records will be available only in computer form, and what access rights will the public have then?" Clothier said.

Also intending to weigh in is Community Legal Services Inc., which provides legal services to low-income Philadelphians.

The group's managing attorney, Sharon M. Dietrich, said easier access to criminal case records will increase the incidence of mistaken identities when employers or landlords do background checks.

She said correcting an error -- something the policy would require counties to do -- can be difficult or impossible.

"I'm convinced there are going to be a good number of people who can't find work because they're being confused with somebody who does have a record. I already have these cases," Dietrich said.

Her preference is to not list any cases before there is a conviction and to include defendants' dates of birth and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.

Pennsylvania Newspaper Association lawyer Teri Henning said any records available at the courthouse should, with very limited exceptions, also be available electronically.

"An individual's right to access public court records should not depend on whether they have a functioning car, or whether they can leave work to get to the courthouse before it closes," she said.

The seven-member AOPC committee, which included lawyers and technical-support workers, developed the proposal over three years and published it in the Pennsylvania Bulletin on Saturday. The comment period ends Nov. 17, after which the staff will examine the responses and possibly
revise the draft.

The decision on whether to adopt it as policy rests with the state Supreme Court. If enacted in its current form, counties would not be allowed to deviate from the policy by releasing more or less information electronically

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