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Panel votes to purge cases from state online court database (UPDATE)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s courts director is considering removing records of criminal cases that ended in dismissal or acquittals from the state’s popular online courts database within months, rather than decades, out of concern that people are abusing the information.

The move could result in thousands of cases disappearing overnight from the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access database, popularly known as CCAP, warned Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders. Hard copies of the records would still be available at local courthouses, but they would no longer be a mouse click away. The state would be left with an online compendium of the guilty that could lead to even more discrimination, Lueders said.

“If you’re (in the database) you did something wrong,” Lueders said. “That might make matters worse for people who think the database has been used against them. I also don’t like this idea that’s at the core of it: that the proper way to deal with potential misuse of information is to restrict access to information.”

The database contains all manner of criminal and civil records, from homicides to speeding tickets. Anyone can access the site, which gets millions of hits daily. Each criminal case includes a note on whether the case is undecided and whether the defendant was exonerated or convicted.

Still, legislators have been looking to pare down information on the database for years due to complaints that people use it to snoop on neighbors and employers and landlords use it to discriminate against job applicants and renters. Republicans on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee mounted a failed attempt in 2015 to remove all records of cases in which charges have been dismissed prior to trial for offenses where the maximum penalty was six years or less in prison, the defendant was under 25 and the offense wasn’t violent.

State courts director Denis Moran convened an oversight committee last year to examine database retention. The 28-member panel, which includes Lueders, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, judges, court clerks and a state Justice Department representative, approved a wide-ranging set of recommendations Tuesday.

The package calls for all records of felony cases that end in dismissal or acquittal to be removed from the database after a year or two, as determined by Moran. Records of dismissed or acquitted misdemeanors would vanish in half the time proscribed for felonies. Right now, class A felonies such as homicide are retained both online and in the courthouse for 75 years. All other felonies are retained for 50 years.

Misdemeanors are retained for 20 years.

According to committee materials, 9.3 percent of the felonies and 16.3 percent of the misdemeanors currently in the database were dismissed or resulted in acquittals.

Lueders said he voted against the felony and misdemeanor proposal and Vos voted for it. Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer didn’t immediately reply to a message seeking comment.

The recommendations also call for the erasing of small claims cases that were dismissed by agreement between the parties after two years — the same retention period currently in place for small claims cases dismissed by a judge. Small claims cases that aren’t dismissed are currently retained for 20 years.

Records of dismissed or denied restraining orders and injunctions would disappear after two to four years as determined by Moran. They’re currently retained for 20 to 30 years.

Wisconsin courts spokesman Tom Sheehan noted the committee plans to meet four more times through August and Moran plans to wait until the panel completes its final report before deciding on his next steps.

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