January: Don’t erase criminal charges from online records

2008 Columns

On the surface, it seems like a simple, fair change to Wisconsin court procedures: If you escape conviction, your case can be erased from online records.

But the possible consequence of such a fundamental change in public records access is more complicated – and the matter is so contentious that a Legislative Council committee did not advance any recommendations for change after months of research and debate.

That hasn’t stopped two lawmakers from forging ahead with a plan to change the availability of information about circuit court activity. A proposed bill, co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Robin Vos of Racine and Democratic Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, would allow criminal defendants to have their cases removed from the state’s electronic court database, Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, if they are found innocent or if charges are dropped.

The proposal alarms freedom-of-information advocates, who say erasing such cases would confuse the public and impede media seeking to evaluate the state’s criminal-justice system.

The popular electronic database, which gets about a million hits a day, currently catalogs all cases filed in circuit courts in Wisconsin, going back nearly two decades. (The only exception is Portage County, which currently only displays probate cases.)

Vos chaired the Legislative Council committee that in 2006 looked at – but failed to agree upon- whether and when to expand the ability to expunge criminal charges, and/or shield these from public view. The lawmaker said he heard complaints from defendants who suffered job discrimination because of cases listed in the database, even when they were acquitted or charges were dismissed. Although the database displays a prominent disclaimer anytime a record shows a person is cleared of charges, Vos believes few people read it.

“If you’re innocent, or the wrong person identified, why should that stick with you for the rest of your life?” Vos asked.

Though electronic records would be purged, Vos said paper records of such cases would remain on file, as always, at county courthouses. And the electronic database of Wisconsin Court of Appeals and Supreme Court cases wouldn’t be affected by the proposal.

Nevertheless, Wisconsin Newspaper Association President Peter Fox warned that taking some lower court records off the state database would set a dangerous precedent.

“For one thing, the WCCA site is intended to reflect the actual record of Wisconsin courts, not excerpts thereof,” said Fox, also a Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council member. “Essentially, this proposal would create two ‘sets of books.’ ”

FOIC President Bill Lueders said changes “would greatly complicate the task of reporters and others who want to use online court records to research wrongful prosecutions that result in acquittal or dismissal.”

Lueders, news editor of Isthmus, Madison’s alternative weekly newspaper, said media have used electronic court records to research allegations that, for example, a prosecutor has filed baseless charges against defendants.

In some cases, there is value in knowing about dismissed charges – “for instance, that a particular applicant for a child-care job has been criminally charged with molesting children a half-dozen times but in each case has managed to get acquitted,” Lueders said.

And although the bill says all charges must be dismissed, or lead to acquittal, for charges to disappear from the online database, FOI advocates worry that defendants charged with multiple crimes will seek removal of charges dismissed as part of plea bargains.

Admittedly, most cases erased from online records probably would involve minor brushes with law by private citizens. Still, such a law would create confusion about what charges are and aren’t public online. This would likely drive more users to seek this information from pro-profit providers.

Finally, the legislation plays into a myth: That in our data-based, networked world, there is some way to purge one’s past personal blemishes from the record. In fact, there will always be ways to obtain and traffic in this information – but without the ability to correct errors afforded by the current system.  

Hall is a reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal and a member of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the FOIC (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government.