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View from around the state: Don’t restrict court record access

From the La Crosse Tribune

 

If you’re looking for a sign of spring in Wisconsin, opponents of openness are once again proposing restrictions on public information contained on one of the nation’s most accessible online systems of court records.

As we’ve said many times, restricting public access to public information is a bad idea.

This week, legislative committees will begin deliberating the potential removal of select information from the Wisconsin Court System’s Consolidated Court Automation Programs.

CCAP has been hailed for providing open, free access to public information contained in our court system. Opponents, however, say it provides too much information. They want to purge information about cases that have been dismissed, adjudicated as not guilty or overturned on appeal.

But what if someone has several arrests for the same crime? What if a particular criminal charge in a specific jurisdiction is repeatedly dismissed? What can we learn from public information about the individual, the prosecutor, the judge?

If the opponents of openness have their way, we won’t learn a thing.

The CCAP system has been modified over the years to improve transparency. The site itself — wcca.wicourts.gov — reminds visitors about their responsibilities.

First, it reminds us that a not-guilty verdict presumes innocence. In addition, it reminds employers that they must not discriminate against a job applicant because of a criminal charge. Even a conviction shouldn’t be considered unless it has direct relation to the type of job being sought.

Restricting access also opens the way for a cottage industry of companies that likely will charge for that information — not exactly a model of accessibility.

Besides, if the site only contains convictions, that means each prosecutor would appear to have a perfect conviction rate — and only guilty people would be listed on the site.

Conversely, how does an innocent person prove innocence from an earlier arrest if that information is purged?

One of the legislators proposing the change, Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, told the Wisconsin State Journal that CCAP allows “any busybody who wants to can see you were charged.”

Well, senator, we can’t seem to find the word “busybody” in Wisconsin’s open-records, open-meetings laws. Apparently open means open — regardless of busybody status or any other reason for accessing public information. That’s a foundation of democracy.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, told the State Journal: “It’s unclear why so many state lawmakers believe their constituents are so stupid and mean that they can’t comprehend that a charge was dismissed or an individual found not guilty without leaping to unfair conclusions or wrongful actions. But that is what drives legislation like this.”

So, as we wrote on Feb. 27, 2008, on Oct. 1, 2010, and on other occasions when limitations were proposed for CCAP, we think anything that hinders public access to public information is a lousy idea.

Here’s how we ended our 2010 editorial on this topic: “A democracy cannot operate, and people cannot truly be free, if they cannot trust that they are getting the full story about what is happening in their courts.”

Nothing has changed our view.

One comment

  1. I dont understand why anyone would need to see charges that were dismissed or one was found not guilty/INNOCENT of. If a court finds you innocent, u should be just that, so why should anyone be able to see it connected to you?
    Its similar to libel, yes only until u further read they were found innocent, but still. It plants that seed. It doesnt go on to give any details, so its verry easy for someone to judge you for a crime you were found innocent in a court of law!
    It just doesnt need to be there for any reason!

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