JUNEAU, Alaska — Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson has proposed legislation that would remove certain criminal cases from the state’s online court-records system.
Applicable cases would be ones that resulted in a person being acquitted of all charges or having those charges dismissed, or in which someone was acquitted on some charges and had the remaining charges dropped. Those records could not be published by the court system online if 60 days had elapsed from the date of acquittal or dismissal.
Wilson, R-North Pole, said the court-records site can be difficult to navigate, creating confusion over the final disposition of cases. She says that has had an effect on some people getting jobs or apartments. Hard copies of court records would remain available.
Lawmakers last year passed more sweeping legislation that would have made all such records confidential, with few exceptions, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Sean Parnell as overly broad.
The original version of Wilson’s bill mirrored the vetoed bill, and Wilson said she wished the state could still go down that route; once someone is found not guilty, he or she shouldn’t have that following them around, she said. But she said she understood some of the concerns about access to information that the bill raised. She sees her current version of HB 11, scheduled for a hearing on Friday, as a good compromise.
The online court records system, known as CourtView, carries a disclaimer cautioning users to check the disposition of each charge.
The court system has undertaken steps of its own to remove certain dismissed cases from CourtView, including criminal cases dismissed for lack of probable cause or because a prosecutor did not file charges and protection orders for domestic violence or stalking dismissed at or before a hearing on a petition because there is not sufficient evidence that the petitioner is a victim of domestic violence or stalking.
The court system heard from people that having their names on CourtView was causing them embarrassment or other problems when they felt they should not be listed, said Nancy Meade, general counsel for the court system. The Alaska Supreme Court carved out the cases it agreed should not be publicly available “mostly because all of these descriptions of cases that were added are cases that, in some ways, aren’t true cases,” she said. A person may have entered the court system by being arrested, but if a prosecutor doesn’t file a charging document, it’s as if there wasn’t a case, she said.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner last year lauded Parnell’s veto, calling it “an important development for Alaska government transparency.” The newspaper’s managing editor, Rod Boyce, said in a recent interview that he can understand the impetus for Wilson’s new bill. He often hears from people who don’t want their cases in the paper and say the charges are going to be dismissed.
In those cases, Boyce said he often gives them the benefit of the doubt and waits a couple days, depending on the magnitude of the case, to see if the case is dropped. There is no intention or desire to harm anyone, Boyce said.
But he said there are minuses to the approach in Wilson’s bill. If it passes, the online record will not be complete and people looking for information, say on a candidate for office, will have to ask court clerks to search their files for anything related to that person, he said.
“I don’t think there’s any solution that satisfies everybody, but I’m guessing this is probably the best we can hope for,” he said. “It’s not going to keep me awake at night, unlike last year, which I thought went way too far.”