N.D. high court considers limiting online court records

J.C. Derrick | Secret Courts | Feature | October 25, 2011

The North Dakota Supreme Court is considering a proposed amendment to its rules that would block public Internet access to certain criminal records, sparking concern over access to court records.

The court held a public meeting on Monday about the proposed rule, which would remove cases from the Internet in which a defendant was acquitted, the case was dismissed, or its paper record is no longer required by law to be kept on file. The rule would only affect electronic files and not paper records.

"The proposed changes dilute and essentially make useless what likely is the wave of the future," said media attorney Jack McDonald in a letter he wrote to the court in opposing the proposal on behalf of the North Dakota Newspaper Association and the North Dakota Broadcasters Association.

"As the courts move forward with electronic filings and move steadily towards a paperless system, the electronic docket will soon become [the only] record," he wrote.

According to the proposed amendment, persons who want to remove a case from the Internet record must file a motion with the court. McDonald said this places all power to remove records in the hands of the state's 42 district judges, who will arbitrarily decide how often they choose to keep the records available online.

"By allowing these things to go on, what you have is an inaccurate docket," said McDonald, who is based in Bismarck. He said the amendment would "ensure that no one will ever be sure what really is the record."

According to the minutes of a court committee meeting comprised of judges and attorneys, the rule change was proposed after Bismarck defense attorney Tom Dickson pointed out that records are already removed from the Internet docket when a defendant receives deferred imposition of sentence -- a procedure that allows minor crimes to be completely removed from a person's record if the offender does not violate probation during a certain period of time. Dickson asserts that the public nature of Internet dockets wrongly hinders some people in search of employment.

North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Dale Sandstrom,who chairs the Court Technology Committee, disagreed. "The claims of a problem with public access to truthful information are anecdotal and unsupported by any study," he wrote in his own letter of opposition to the proposed amendment.

"It is important to note that the information available on the judicial branch's public Internet site is not information found by a Google or similar search," Sandstrom wrote. "It is found by people who specifically come to our court website seeking accurate, public information about specific individuals."

Sandstrom said the clerk of court workload would be "significantly increased" by such a practice, and the change would give an advantage to those who have the resources and knowledge needed to access the information in person at the clerks' offices.

If the court decides to adopt the amendment, it would take effect March 1, 2012.