February: Don’t erode access to court records

2010 Columns

Once again, Wisconsin’s online circuit court access program (commonly called CCAP) is under attack.

CCAP is, by all accounts, a successful program. It provides free online access to most circuit court records, civil or criminal, and is accessed three million to five million times a day. It saves the public and court employees untold amounts of time by providing quick, updated information on the status of past and current cases in Wisconsin’s circuit courts.

There are ongoing legislative attempts to neuter CCAP. In fact, an Assembly bill that would drastically reduce access to CCAP passed out of committee earlier this month.

But another challenge to CCAP is pending in a different forum. The State Bar of Wisconsin has petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to modify state court rules in a way that would not only reduce access to CCAP, but completely expunge even the paper records of certain court cases.

The State Bar’s petition is aimed at criminal complaints that are dismissed or result in acquittal, because of claimed instances of bias against people who have been criminally charged but not convicted. But the actual language of the petition goes farther, allowing expungement of records for civil as well as criminal cases-even those resulting in conviction-after a certain period or if other prerequisites are met.

Even if the Petition were aimed only at criminal complaints resulting in dismissal or acquittal, its proponents have submitted no evidence that people criminally charged are regularly denied jobs, housing or licenses because of discrimination related to their arrests.

In fact, as The Associated Press recently reported, state Rep. Marlin Schneider-a longtime advocate of reducing CCAP access-has exaggerated the number of complaints he’s received. Whereas Schneider claimed his office had gotten “hundreds” of letters from people alleging discrimination due to dismissed charges, the actual number of these since 2006 was 22, the AP found.

Perhaps it makes sense to study the actual nature and extent of the problem. But even if wrongful discrimination is occurring, there are other ways to address it than reducing access to court records-for example, by beefing up enforcement of Wisconsin’s laws prohibiting discrimination based on arrests or convictions unrelated to a given job.

Simply expunging all record of past charges and convictions is an overreaction that has its own consequences. Consider this story from a Freedom of Information Council member who had been a reporter in a state that allowed expungement and record destruction for misdemeanor crimes after a certain time period. The reporter learned from state wildlife officials that a famous big game hunter had just been fined for poaching a huge trophy deer out of season.

This was purportedly the poacher’s seventh violation. He should not have even been able to get a hunting license, according to state law. The reporter was able to verify through wardens all seven arrests and charges. However, no record existed of the six previous violations because state law had allowed each to be expunged before the next offense occurred. As a result, each violation was, according to the records, his first offense and drew the minimum fine.

Imagine if misdemeanor convictions for operating a vehicle while intoxicated, assault and battery, domestic abuse, theft, drug dealing, carrying a concealed weapon, are all able to be erased and swept under the rug as if they never happened. And there will be no way for citizens to monitor how our legal system is handing these cases.

These kinds of consequences recently led Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to weigh in against the petition in a recent filing with the Court.

The Supreme Court hears the State Bar’s petition on Feb. 24. Considering the petition’s consequences, and the overall threat to open government it poses, all users of CCAP should hope it is rejected.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), dedicated to open meetings and open records. Christa Westerberg, an attorney at McGillivray Westerberg & Bender, LLC, in Madison, is the group’s vice president.