Compass: Governor should veto bill to bar access to Alaska court records

Senate Bill 108 has passed the Alaska Legislature and awaits Gov. Parnell's signature. The bill bars public access to criminal records when all charges have been dismissed or when a defendant is acquitted at trial. The bill aims to provide the defendant, presumed innocent until proven guilty, with privacy after being criminally exonerated. Victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child sexual abuse, and our communities will suffer if SB 108 becomes law.

Important information will be lost. Unless the offender is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in the criminal case, courts will hide the record that 1) police investigated and recommended charges, 2) a prosecutor independently reviewed and agreed to file charges, 3) a judge reviewed the complaint and independently found probable cause, or 4) a grand jury voted to indict.

The governor has urged each of us, through his Choose Respect and Green Dot campaigns, to be vigilant to report and act to stop domestic violence and sexual abuse. Community policing is an important public safety tool. Because the government cannot protect its citizens day to day, the public should be empowered with access to information for its protection.

Alaska's children will be more vulnerable. Family and other private attorneys will lose access to

information necessary to develop their cases.

Access to criminal court records would be barred anytime a prosecutor dismisses a matter due to 1) loss of key evidence, 2) the death, relocation, or unavailability of a key witness, 3) a falsely recanting witness, 4) police or prosecutorial misconduct or mismanagement, 5) jury nullification, 6) a conviction is reversed after an appeal and not retried, and 7) the state dismisses their case to allow a federal or other jurisdiction to prosecute.

Alaskans' sense of community and public trust will be diminished as they wonder what

information the government has hidden from public view. The media will be permitted to report on high profile criminal matters as the case is tried, but they, citizens and researchers will be unable to refer back to official court records once a defendant is acquitted. Alaska's freedom of information act promotes the general principle that public records should be open to public inspection and government operation should be transparent.

Once a criminal case has gone to a public trial, the record is a matter of public interest. Important statistical and historical information, and public's ability to detect and expose fraud and abuse, will be hampered. OJ Simpson, Ted Stevens, Mechele Linehan, Israel Keyes, and George Zimmerman are examples of the type of criminal cases which will be concealed by SB 108. What if we could not access official documents about these cases? Removing cases from public view and scrutiny would allow our state government to rewrite history to the public's detriment.

Courtview displays information in an objective format. Legislators evidently believe Alaskans cannot understand or use the information fairly or responsibly.

Most of us no longer live in a small community where we can connect with each other face to face. We rely on technology and the internet for information and to retain our sense of community.

SB 108 sweeps too broadly. A better balance should be struck to preserve public safety and public access. Taxpayers support and must rely on law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts to administer criminal justice. Automatically removing large segments of criminal matters of public record will make it difficult for the public to hold the government accountable and will cause more harm than it will prevent.

SB 108 does more than limit public access to Courtview records. If the governor signs SB 108 into law, for the first time in Alaska's history, public access to large segments of criminal records at the courthouses around the state will be barred.

The governor should veto SB 108.

If you support freedom of information, the First Amendment, government transparency, and community safety, contact the governor's office to express your concerns about SB 108.

Taylor Winston is Executive Director of Office of Victims' Rights and a former state prosecutor.