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UPDATED: State Supreme Court Rejects Limiting Access to Criminal Cases

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A court advisory board had recommended that an online court case lookup system no longer contain records of closed criminal cases in which there was no conviction

 

SANTA FE — The state Supreme Court has rejected a proposal that would have stopped the public from having online access to closed criminal cases in which there was no conviction.

A government watchdog organization and others on Thursday applauded the court’s unanimous decision as a victory for transparency in government.

Michael Corwin, who runs a private investigation and research business in Albuquerque, said the court’s ruling “recognizes the public’s right to know.”

Sarah Welsh, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the decision ensures “accurate court docketing records will continue to be available through the online case lookup.”

A court advisory board had recommended that an online court case lookup system no longer contain records of criminal cases that were closed because the defendant was acquitted or the charges were dismissed or vacated.

The panel contended that the change would protect the privacy of those individuals and shield them a “social stigma” as well as potential housing or employment discrimination. Opponents of the proposed change said it would have made it more difficult for employers or others to research the criminal background of potential workers.

The justices, in a 3-page order, didn’t explain their decision but said they had considered “the various competing concerns inherent in issues regarding public access to court records, including openness and transparency in government, accuracy in reporting and record-keeping and the avoidance of unjustifiable harm to reputation.”

The judiciary’s website shows the docket of a case, providing a summary of what happened. It does not provide access to records that might be included in a case file. People have to go to a court to obtain the documents.

Corwin said the website “is a fantastic tool that serves as a roadmap to guide the public to the right courthouse in order to view a court file on a given individual.”

“The court’s decision reaffirms that the state should never make it more difficult to review public records,” said Corwin. “It also recognizes the fact that cases can be dismissed for reasons other than actual innocence.”

Welsh said one part of the court’s ruling was potentially troubling because it will allow case information from municipal and magistrate courts, which only handle misdemeanor criminal matters, to be removed from the online system after paper records are destroyed, usually within 1-3 years, and there is no electronic image of the record. The justice said paper or image files are necessary to verify the accuracy of online information.

Municipal and magistrate courts, unlike a state district court, do not make recordings or transcripts of their proceedings.

The justices encouraged the municipal and magistrate courts to use imaging technology to preserve records and it directed the advisory board, the Judicial Information Systems Council, to study the question of how long to retain records. The council is to make a report to the Supreme Court, and Welsh said it’s possible that could lead to records being preserved longer.

Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said paper records in magistrate courts are destroyed because there’s no room to keep them at the state Records and Archives Center. Records of misdemeanor drunken driving convictions are kept longer, he said, because those are needed to prove that an offender had previous convictions and should be subject to tougher penalties.

 


Thursday, 16 September 2010 12:17

 

The state Supreme Court has rejected a proposal that would have stopped the public from having Internet access to closed criminal cases in which there was no conviction.

The court announced its decision on Thursday by issuing an order in Santa Fe.

A court advisory board had recommended that an online court case lookup system no longer contain records of criminal cases that were closed because the defendant was acquitted or the charges were dismissed or vacated. The panel contended that the change would protect individuals from discrimination and “social stigma.”

Opponents said the proposal was contrary to open government and would have made it more difficult for employers to research the criminal background of potential workers.

 

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