ANNAPOLIS – A draft order by the state judiciary system to limit access to computerized criminal court records is raising eyebrows among freedom of information and privacy advocates.
The draft order recently published by the Ad Hoc Court Records Committee of the Maryland Judiciary limits dial-up access to court databases to attorneys, other officers of the courts or criminal justice agencies. The order also would require specificity in search requests and limit access to “a person or agency engaged in legitimate research, evaluation or statistical activities.”
“Aggregate requests,” which require computer searches in the court’s internal database, have become difficult to handle, said Sally Rankin of the Court Information Office. Such requests are sometimes unspecific and often require special computer programs to be created, causing a strain on court manpower, she said.
“You’ve got finite resources,” she said. “And how do you explain to somebody `Your request is on hold because we have five requests ahead of you coming from outside organizations?'” Advocates for freedom of the press, though, are concerned about the change.
“Obviously they’re just being swamped with a lot of requests,” said Tom Marquardt, managing editor of The Capital newspaper in Annapolis. “But in avoiding the work, they may be trampling on the Constitution.”
The draft, Marquardt said, gives the records custodian too much discretion in denying requests.
Marquardt is also chairman of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association freedom of information committee. He said the draft order could give records custodians broad authority to deny requests arbitrarily, obstructing the public’s right to know.
Court records are treasure troves of information for reporters, private investigators, employers conducting background checks, government agencies and members of the public. Details of evidence in criminal convictions, testimony in divorce cases and litigants’ addresses, for example, are all public records.
Those records in paper form are relatively difficult to sort through, officials said, and often require traveling long distances between jurisdictions to do a comprehensive search. But the computerization of records has made them easier than ever to access and increased the possibility that private information could be inadvertently publicized.
“Technology has significantly changed,” said Julia Andrew, an assistant attorney general for the state judiciary who wrote the draft order. “We have to now look at the rules and regulations that we have and ascertain if they address this new computerized court system where you’re not accessing single court records to build a criminal history, you’re looking at one computer system that services all the courts.”
Of the 2,000 dial-up users with direct access to the court system’s central database, Andrew said 59 percent were not law firms or government agencies. They were banks, news organizations, private detective agencies, credit bureaus and private information gathering companies, among others.
A 1976 state law required the chief judge and the secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services to establish rules and regulations governing criminal history record information and the reporting and dissemination of such information.
If signed by Chief Court of Appeals Judge Robert M. Bell, who oversees the state court system administration, the order would supercede the Maryland Public Information Act governing access to official records if the two are inconsistent.
Judge Bell did not return repeated phone calls.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union favors expansion of privacy rights, as well as open records. But Legislative Director Suzanne Smith said neither interest would be served as the draft opinion is worded.
“The major benefit of this policy is one of court convenience rather than expanding privacy interests of individuals in the court system,” she said.
Smith urged caution in dealing with computerized records. She said there is a high potential for privacy intrusions.
Marquardt also acknowledged a privacy interest, but he said the changes should not go too far.
“They’re giving us a key to a Pandora’s box that is all of the data they use,” Marquardt said of the central database. “There are things in those databases that should be kept private. We understand that. But we don’t want to be denied access to what is legitimately public information.”
News organizations use the Court Information Office to research stories using their database, Marquardt said. Without that service, he said, for example, a story about a judge’s track record in spousal abuse cases would take months of searching through paper records.
The public comment period on the draft order ends Dec. 1. A Dec. 13 hearing will be held in Annapolis.
Court officials said the changes were not intended to restrict access to paper public records or computerized information kept at public terminals at courthouses.
Press association director Tom Donahue disagreed with the court’s position. He said his organization would strongly oppose the draft.
“Rather than supplement the existing law as the draft proclaims,” he said, “these changes in several instances would eviscerate the law.”