North Dakota looks to Minnesota for help with court-records access dilemma

November 1, 2011

North Dakota’s newspaper and broadcast associations are decrying a plan to limit online access to some criminal-court records.  But the state’s courts system also is looking to Minnesota for help.

The concern is over how easy it is to access online the court records of people who are charged with crimes but never convicted of those crimes.   The easy access access hinders innocent people from getting apartments and jobs–anecdotally at least.

Minnesota has a record “expungement” process by which criminal defendants may petition a court to seal court records.   But North Dakota is taking a different tack by considering a rule that would leave the records in paper files but shield them from online access on a case-by-case basis.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ website describes the proposal.  The RCFP also links to a letter from Jack McDonald, a lawyer for the journalist associations, who explains the proposed rule could effectively seal all such data from public view as courts go paperless.

But minutes from the commission’s meetings also demonstrate that court-system staff mebmers have been directed to investigate Minnesota’s expungement process as a potential alternative.

Minnesota’s system still hinders journalists from obtaining truthful information–something that remains a concern.  And the solution to the North Dakota problem would be best solved by providing more information, not less.  For example, teh courts’ website could make it glaringly clear when onetime defendants were not convicted of crimes.

But as it stands, the proposed two-tiered approach to availability of public records chips away at the public’s right to know and vests government with discretion to keep truthful information from the public.


One Response to “North Dakota looks to Minnesota for help with court-records access dilemma”

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