Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Justices hear arguments over Wis. court records - WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL

By TODD RICHMOND

Wisconsin's legal association told the state Supreme Court on Wednesday that judges need broader powers to expunge court records because the records are too easily accessible online and can be abused.

Currently, judges can expunge juvenile records and records of offenders under age 25 who committed misdemeanors or low-level felonies. The State Bar of Wisconsin has petitioned the Supreme Court to adopt rules that would permit judges to erase records in an acquittal, if a case is dismissed or if the minimum time for retaining the records has expired.

"To allow continued access to such easily misunderstood information ... poses the risk that such a record could be 'a vehicle for improper purposes,' whether intentional or not," the association's petition said.

Criminal defense attorney Erik Guenther, speaking on behalf of the bar association during a hearing before the court, argued that judges have the inherent power to control their own records, even if that means going beyond state statutes.

But justices seemed skeptical. Justice Annette Ziegler questioned whether the court could grant judges more powers than state law dictates.

"As a judge you have to follow what the law says, whether you like it or not," Ziegler said.

At issue is Wisconsin's online court database, which offers anyone with a computer and a mouse access to statewide criminal and civil records. The site generates as many as 5 million hits per day.

Each case carries a summary page that notes whether someone was found guilty or innocent. The page also warns that discriminating against a person because of his or her criminal record is illegal in most cases.

Still, pressure is mounting to curtail public access to the site. Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, is pushing a bill that would restrict public access to cases with convictions. He says people are complaining that employers, landlords and romantic prospects found their names on the site and denied them a job, housing or a relationship, regardless of whether they were acquitted.

"There is no forgiveness or mercy anymore," Schneider said.

Richard Moeck, 62, told the justices that a state appeals court acquitted him of sexual assault and a host of other charges that stemmed from a 1997 case in La Crosse. He was released from prison in 2005, but the online database still lists his case.

His entry mentions the charges have been dropped, but he insisted the file has cost him relationships with two women and an acting job.

"It's ridiculous they're allowed to put anything on there," Moeck said.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said expanding judges' powers to expunge the records would be "unnecessary and unwise."

He said that people's stories about being wronged by the availability of the records were just that _ stories _ that don't account for other factors, such as a lack of skills for a job. If people are so sure they were harmed they can sue, he added.

He said the database offers an important avenue to evaluate law enforcement and prosecutors' actions.

"The citizens of Wisconsin are entitled to know what their court system is doing," Lueders said.

Justice Patrick Crooks told his colleagues after the hearing that acquittals and dismissals should be removed from the online database.

"People acquitted or found not guilty are stigmatized," he said.

The justices decided to research whether they or the Legislature have the power to make changes and discuss what could be done with the database with their technology staff.

Gov. Jim Doyle has said he supports letting judges decide whether to expunge records.

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