Wisconsin’s online court records withstand challengesWisconsin Circuit Court Access, the public's online access to court records in the state, has survived several attempts on its life through the years but remains in constant jeopardy, the president of a watchdog group says.
By: Paul Srubas, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Superior Telegram
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, the public's online access to court records in the state, has survived several attempts on its life through the years but remains in constant jeopardy, the president of a watchdog group says.
"It has probably occupied more of my attention through the years than any other single issue," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. "The system is a target of concern and attack."
Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, or WCCA, is commonly but incorrectly referred to as CCAP — Consolidated Court Automation Programs, which is a statewide, computer case management system for the state's circuit courts. CCAP operates the WCCA system as its public access component.
WCCA allows anyone with access to a computer to find out the state criminal history of any adult, including charges, hearing schedules and dispositions. It also allows similar instant access into civil court records.
All but one of Wisconsin's 72 counties use the system, and the last county, Portage, expects to go online at the end of this month. The system receives 3 million to 5 million page views per day, most frequently from court officials, lawyers and the media, but the site is open to everyone.
Some lawyers and legislators consider aspects of the service to be an invasion of privacy and have sought changes that would limit information now available on the system.
Lueders has spoken out against several initiatives over the years that would restrict information on WCCA, impose a fee or restrict the people who could use the service.
In 2007, the Joint Legislative Council set up a committee to look at possible legislation to allow records to be expunged for certain offenses. Under the plan, expunction would mean elimination of the electronic and physical records in the case. The committee disbanded without making a recommendation, and no change was made.
In 2010, the Joint Legislative Council set up another committee charged with basically the same task. It looked particularly at expanding the ability of courts to order expunction, especially in cases involving dismissed charges or acquittals. The committee drafted several recommendations to that effect, but its chairman eventually recommended against adoption.
Since then, the Wisconsin Bar Association petitioned the Supreme Court to enact basically those same recommendations as an administrative rule change.
Courts currently can order expunction at the time of sentencing, and the bar argues that it makes little sense to allow records to be expunged for certain convicted cases without offering the same option for cases involving acquittals or dismissals.
That petition remains on the Supreme Court's agenda for consideration but with no timetable.
Advocates of open government such as Lueders and his organization oppose the change. Expunging a conviction is fine, but expunging the record is a mistake, Lueders said.
"Just because a case is expunged doesn't mean there's no historic or practical value to those records anymore," Lueders said. "There may be future occasions where you're going to want to have a record of what happened.
"I don't mind, as a matter of policy, that more people would be entitled to the legal benefits of expunction, which is that the legal conviction is wiped out and they can answer truthfully that they were not convicted of a crime," Lueders said. "That's fine, if the state wants to change the rules about who qualifies for that. But I'd argue that even in those cases, it should be possible for people to find out someone was still charged with a crime, that they went through a deferred prosecution and that the judge expunged the record."
Eliminating the court records isn't in the public's interest and it isn't even automatically in a defendant's best interest, Lueders said.
"The fact is, you can't get away from your past anymore," he said. "If you get your name in the paper because you were arrested ... that'll be out on the Internet possibly for the rest of time. The court record should be there to provide more information."
"The court records should also be there in cases where charges were dismissed. The state shouldn't be able to come in and disrupt people's lives with arrests and criminal charges and lose a case because charges never should have been brought to begin with and then make all trace of it disappear off the face of the earth."
Information from: Green Bay Press-Gazette, http://www.greenbaypressgazette.com