The latest attempt to help those who are unfairly persecuted because of a wrongful arrest is drawing the ire of First Amendment advocates who say the measure would deny much of the public easy access to records.
The bill was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday by Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and in the Assembly on June 20 by Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee.
If passed, it would give defendants who were found not guilty in criminal and civil cases – as well as cases involving restraining orders and evictions – a chance to request that the information be removed from the publicly-accessible Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website.
“Too many people stop at the initial screen that says [a person is] charged with a crime, and that’s it,” Goyke said. “And that’s not an accurate picture.”
Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, or WCCA, is commonly referred to as CCAP — Consolidated Court Automation Programs, which is a statewide, computer case management system for the circuit courts. CCAP operates the WCCA system as its public access component.
According to the bill, a defendant found not guilty would be given a way to ask the director of state courts to remove the information from the CCAP. Similar bills have failed to progress in recent years.
The bill proposes a separate database, with details of all cases, be maintained for certain groups including: court employees, law enforcement, attorneys, journalists, debt collectors, real-estate workers, financial-institution employees, landlords and those who prepare title reports for the sale and purchase of property.
Case information would remain public for those convicted of a crime or found to be at fault in a civil case. And information about all cases – whether a defendant is guilty or not – would still be available at a county’s clerk of courts office.
The bill also would also require an employer or landlord who denies a person a job or housing to disclose that they accessed CCAP for information. If they do not do that, they will face a $1,000 fine.
Goyke, who worked for the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s office before being elected, said the measure was written so “those members of the community that are trusted to use their access correctly are not sidelined and are not blacked out.”
But Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said it is troubling that information about court cases where prosecutors or law enforcement made mistakes and subsequently dropped a case would not be easily accessible to the public so they can be held accountable.
“If they’re going to charge someone and later dismiss the charges,” Lueders said, “it ought to be clear from public record.”
He added, however, that he supports the part of the bill requiring landlords and employers to disclose use of the website, and that he thinks it should be introduced as a separate piece of legislation.
Robert Dreps, an attorney with Godfrey & Kahn SC who represents the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said the bill is problematic because it could give companies opportunity to charge people for easy access to public records.
“Whatever problem they’re trying to correct is not going to be solved by limiting access to public records,” Dreps said. “If you can’t do it conveniently with the existing database, somebody for profit will create a competing database and will allow landlords and employers to access it for a fee.”
But Goyke stressed in an interview that the bill is solely aimed to restrict “access to misleading information on innocent people.”
“Or, to put it the other way,” he said, “it protects people who are innocent from misleading conclusions based on access to that information.”
The ideas in the current bill have been debated several times over the past decade. The Joint Legislative Council set up committees in 2007 and 2010 to look at possible legislation to allow records to be expunged for certain offenses. However, neither committee ended up making any recommendations.
The State Bar of Wisconsin also petitioned the state Supreme Court to enact basically those same recommendations as an administrative rule change, but that has not come to fruition. Andrea Gage, the bar’s Public Relations Coordinator, did not immediately return calls for comment.
Lueders said Thursday that, much like past efforts, he predicts this bill will be unsuccessful. Goyke disagreed, saying he thinks there is enough of a change in tone recently to drum up support for the latest push.
Taylor did not immediately return a phone call placed Thursday morning. An employee in her office said she was out of town.
“We haven’t made massive changes to the bill that was previously unsuccessful,” Goyke said. “What is changing is how important this is. I think new voices are being added to the fight to clarify [use of] the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access portal and clean it up.”
The Associated Press also contributed to this report.