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Study shows high number of sealed records in state court

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         RHODE ISLAND         Secret Courts         Nov 6, 2000    

Study shows high number of sealed records in state court

  • Court administrator promises to improve policy after learning results of year-long study.

Results of a year-long study of public access to court records shows that the Rhode Island system for closing court records hinders access to some records that should be public. When the results were presented to Rhode Island’s superior court, the administrator of the court promised to institute changes.

The first leg of the three-pronged study was conducted on all criminal cases in which records were sealed between 1995 and 1998. The sealed records prevented the eight Brown University students from confirming suspicions that some were sealed in violation of state law. The Rhode Island statutes only allow criminal records to be sealed if the defendant has had no prior convictions and five years has passed from the completion of the sentence. However, at least 9 percent and perhaps as much as 22 percent of the criminal records sealed during the three-year period violated the law.

The second leg of the study found that civil court records are not sealed as often as criminal court records. Records were sealed in less than 1 percent of civil cases — 87 of 31,000 — between 1993 and 1999. Most of these sealed records were found to be medical records, trade secrets or juvenile records. In most instances, the parties in the lawsuit consented to sealing the documents. However, these figures may not be completely accurate because the students could not obtain a complete list of cases with sealed records from the clerk’s office.

In the final leg of the study, the students requested from city agencies copies of settlement agreements with the city for more than $15,000 between 1998 and 1999. Seventy-one percent of the agencies eventually handed-over the documents.

After the results were sent to the Rhode Island Superior Court, the administrator for the court, John Barrette, responded in a letter by promising that the government will develop a better tracking system for cases involving sealed records.

The Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions supervised the study.

(Brown Policy Reports Public Courts, Private Records: Accessibility and Confidentiality in the Rhode Island Court System) CC

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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