Parnell vetoes bill that would have sealed thousands of court records

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS --  Gov. Sean Parnell on Thursday vetoed a bill that would have made thousands of court records confidential in cases where charges are dismissed or defendants have been acquitted. He said the bill went too far in making court records secret.

Parnell said the goal of striking a balance between open government and the rights of people who have been accused, but not convicted, is a good one.

“Unfortunately, the legislation summarily swept all such cases under the cloak of confidentiality in an unnecessarily broad manner, without respect to likely adverse impacts on the public," he said. "In my view, the legislation unnecessarily restricted access to criminal court records, which would have adversely affected the ability of Alaskans to protect themselves and to hold their judicial system accountable. Additionally, the proposed law would be vulnerable to legal challenge."

Parnell said a recent change in court procedures that took effect Aug. 1, by order of the Supreme Court, will help accomplish some of what the sponsors of the bill intended in an effort to protect privacy and preserve reputations. 

The court system revised its rules about when certain documents are not to show up in court index system for the public. Under the changes, those who have been arrested but not charged and those who have been charged but have the charges dismissed for lack of probable cause or mistaken identity will have their cases left off the electronic index.

In addition, minors wrongly charged in adult court and certain documents about stalking, sexual assault and domestic violence will be excluded. The court rules say that in domestic violence protective order cases in which one party goes to the court and the case is dismissed before or during the hearing for lack of evidence, the information will not be on the public index. In protective order cases regarding stalking and sexual assault, the same approach applies when one party goes to the court.

One of the instances that sparked the campaign for this bill, which won approval 18-1 in the Senate and 23-16 in the House, was a case in which a young woman was arrested on a traffic stop but not charged. Critics of the bill said that it went too far in making documents secret. In his comments about the veto, Parnell praised the court rule changes for what they would do to keep some cases off CourtView.

“Alaskans will no longer have their names on an easily searchable public database due to a minor brush with the law that resulted in no charges, or instances in which a person is the target of a baseless request for a protective order by a disgruntled ex-partner,” he said.

Parnell said he would back a more balanced bill. The governor’s office had received 28 public comments calling for a veto and 19 supporting the bill, a spokeswoman for Parnell said.

The bill would have required that public documents would become confidential four months after a case ends in certain circumstances.

Eagle River Sen. Fred Dyson, the chief  proponent of the bill, said earlier Thursday he did not know what action the governor would take.

“We have a great tradition in this country of 'innocent until proven guilty' is paramount. For all of us, we must respect the Bill of Rights and civil liberties. When in doubt on issues, we must always default to protect civil liberties and the Bill of Rights," said Dyson.

Dyson said nearly 60,000 people have been arrested but had their cases dismissed for various reasons.

"This happens with a third of the misdemeanor cases and about a quarter of the felony cases," Dyson said. "There is no viable way for an innocent person to get their name off the online list. It is fine to talk about the disclaimer on the electronic record but citizens cannot help but be put off by arrests for child molestation or assault."

Anchorage attorney John McKay, in a letter to Parnell calling for a veto, said that those backing the bills showed a distrust of judges, prosecutors and police. He said that making cases secret that are tossed out because of a lack of evidence would hide vital information from the public. The details of those cases could be important both for an understanding of how prosecutions are handled and whether the actions are appropriate.

McKay said the bill would impose "unprecedented restrictions on Alaskans' access to public records."

 

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com.