Unusual application of state law seals access to court records
NEW YORK–A city court in upstate New York is denying a reporter access to court records, purportedly under state laws that provide for the sealing of certain records related to arrests that do not lead to criminal conviction.
Since last summer, Ron Churchill, who covers the Corning City Court for The Leader, has been denied access to the court records of defendants who are either acquitted or convicted of “noncriminal” charges. In a letter to Churchill dated January 10, 1997, Judge David Kahl stated that the court records he sought were sealed under state sealing laws and not available to the public.
State laws provide for the sealing of any police photographs or fingerprints taken pursuant to an arrest where the charges terminate in the defendant’s favor or result in certain noncriminal offenses such as disorderly conduct. According to the law, copies of the records on file with any police department, law enforcement agency or the state criminal justice division should also be sealed.
The statute directs the court clerk to notify the other agencies about the favorable disposition of the case, but is silent about court records. Explanatory commentary accompanying the statute indicates that court documents are not included in the records that the legislature intended to be sealed.
However, in a letter appearing in the February 13, 1997 edition of The Leader, Acting Judge Robert Cole Jr. states that the statute applies to court records and mandates the sealing of such records.
The statute provides that the district attorney can prevent the sealing if he or she can demonstrate to the judge that the interests of justice require that the records remain open. The legislature enacted the statutes to remove any stigma flowing from an accusation of criminal conduct that terminated in favor of the accused. (N.Y. CPL Secs. 160.50, .55)