Court records in a Louisiana parish relating to sex crimes are now open to the public, after years of being under blanket seal.
Previously, no criminal court records involving allegations of sexual assault or abuse were available to the public, per oral order of the judges in the 27th judicial district, said Charles Jagneaux, St. Landry Parish Clerk of Court.
This secrecy was problematic for public safety and awareness reasons, Jagneaux said.
"It is always in the interest of the public to know what is going on in civil and criminal court, and access is important to the safety of the community as long as the dignity and safety of the victim is protected," he said.
These court records are now available with the name, address and identifying features of a victim or minor redacted, according to a Feb. 7 order signed by the district's four judges.
Jagneaux said he was unaware of the blanket seal and did not know how long it had been in place. It may have been the result of accepted practice, he added.
“[They were] doing it as it has always been done, but now it will be done the correct way,” Jagneaux said.
There have been few occasions where information about a sex crime has been requested by the public because the people most affected by the case have already been notified, said Jagneaux. That is why it was able to go on for so long without anyone challenging it.
The blanket sealing of these records in St. Landry Parish was brought to the parish's attention after Eunice News and KATC-TV3 were denied information relating to a sexual assault suspect from Eunice. St. Landry Parish includes the communities of Eunice, Opelousas and Washington in the center of Louisiana.
“The press came out and put our feet to the fire more or less, which is a good thing,” said Jagneaux.
KATC questioned why the records were sealed, but were told by officials that they were sealed under different laws — none of which turned out to be accurate, said Letitia Walker, the station's news director.
Through phone calls and in-person conversations, KATC and St. Landry Parish officials were able to work out the problem, Walker said.
This past Monday, KATC and Jagneaux met in person. Jagneaux apologized, said there was a miscommunication and said his staff was misinformed, Walker said.
“They are doing it right now,” Walker said. “Within a 48-hour period it was corrected.”
Jim Butler, editor for Eunice News, said he has been writing a column about the sealed records for years and has talked to Jagneaux and the district attorney multiple times with no success.
Butler said that there is a universal objective of protecting the victims in cases such as these. However, when the records were closed entirely it benefited the accused more than the victim, he added.