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Wis. lawmaker seeks to limit access to online court records

By The Associated Press
10.07.07

MADISON, Wis. — A state lawmaker who insists Wisconsin’s popular criminal records Web site is ruining people’s lives wants to cut off unsupervised public access to it.

State Rep. Marlin Schneider’s bill, A.B. 418, would allow only police, judges, prosecutors and reporters to log on to the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access site, commonly referred to as CCAP. Anyone else looking for online access would have to ask special permission from district attorneys or court clerks.

Records would still be available to the public at court offices.

The Web site lists detailed information about criminal and civil cases, court dates, convictions and sentences, all at the click of a mouse. It gets about a million hits a day.

Critics have contended for years people abuse the site, using it to dig up dirt on their neighbors and discriminate against job applicants.

A year ago state court officials added disclaimers clarifying whether people were innocent or guilty. They also reduced the number of years traffic and forfeiture cases are posted.

But Schneider, a Wisconsin Rapids Democrat who sat on an oversight committee that recommended those changes, said they didn’t go far enough.

If someone’s name pops up on a CCAP search, people assume the worst, no matter if they’re innocent or guilty, Schneider said. People around the world still have access to other people’s mistakes and can go on punishing them, he said.

“There are still people being harmed by this system,” he said. “No matter how they try to do it, unless they put some controls on this stuff pretty soon, there will be no liberty left.”

Case in point, according to Schneider: A Chippewa County judge placed a restraining order on Brad Wessels in March 2006. The judge vacated the order two months later, but the CCAP disclaimer on his case doesn’t mention that. Finding that information requires scrolling through details of the case.

Wessels, 37, of Chippewa Falls, said he’s had trouble finding dates because of it.

“If it says my name and it says restraining order, that’s about all most people need to see to make a judgment,” he said.

Under Schneider’s bill, only court officers, law enforcement personnel and reporters recognized by the state courts director would have unlimited access to the site.

Anyone else who wanted to log on would have to send a written application to the clerk of courts or the district attorney in the county where the requester lives or where the person named in the record lives or where the court case took place.

The applicant would have to provide his or her name, address, ties to the person in the record and the reason for the request. The district attorney or court clerk would have to decide there’s a “reasonable need” for disclosure before access to the site would be allowed.

Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, ripped the bill Oct. 4.

In a letter to Rep. Garey Bies, a Sister Bay Republican who chairs the Assembly Corrections and Courts Committee, the attorney general called CCAP “a model for the distribution of public information.”

The bill doesn’t change the fact that court records are public, Van Hollen said. Restricting online access would only drive up requesters’ costs, exacerbate delays and burden already overworked prosecutors.

“I firmly believe that the exclusion of the general public ... is not appropriate and frustrates the state’s compelling interest in accessible government,” Van Hollen wrote.

“Big deal. I should care?” Schneider responded.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, sat on the same oversight committee as Schneider.

The public is entitled to know what happens in its courts, he said, and online access saves time and money.

“Wisconsin goes further than any other state in making this information available. And that’s a good thing,” he said.

The bill is currently before the corrections and courts committee. Bies said he doubts it will ever get out.

“I don’t know if Marlin’s going to be able to conjure up the votes,” Bies said. “There’s some pretty compelling testimony as to the right of the public to have access.”


Update
Advocates of privacy, openness debate access to Wis. court records
Editor agrees with lawmaker that information can be abused but says, 'I just don't think the solution to that is to deprive people of access to these records.' 10.14.08

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Florida Supreme Court committee studying whether to place court records on Internet explores difficult balance between privacy, open government. 11.15.04

Access faces formidable foe in privacy fears

By Eugenia Harris FOI Day panelists wrangle with what sorts of information should be readily available to public. 03.18.05

Pa. courts set rules for viewing case records over Internet
New policy has drawn criticism for allowing public online access to info about people who have been charged with a crime but not convicted. 12.06.06

Wash. county limits online access to public records
Beginning March 1, access to 61 types of documents will be stripped from Snohomish County's Internet archives because of identity-theft concerns. 02.25.07

Courts keeping records off Net to shield informants
Some federal judges are withholding plea and sentencing memos from online case files because of concerns that info is being posted on Web site that outs criminal informants, undercover agents. 07.24.07

Okla. limits on records access could hinder background checks
Head of industry group says she knows of no other state that has court-records policy as restrictive as one set to take effect in June. 03.20.08

Okla. high court withdraws order restricting court records
Move comes in response to criticism from free-speech advocates, lawyers, law enforcement, court clerks, journalists and businesses. 03.26.08

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