Senate passes bill to limit access to certain court records

Sen. Fred Dyson speaks on the floor of the Alaska Senate, Feb. 10, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Sen. Fred Dyson speaks on the floor of the Alaska Senate, Feb. 10, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

If you’ve ever been charged with a crime in Alaska, it’s documented in an online database called “Courtview” that anyone can check. Landlords use it. Employers use it. Some people even use it use it while dating to see if their romantic partner has a criminal history. Soon, those searches could be limited to only cases where a guilty verdict has been reached.

Sen. Fred Dyson’s bill would make it so all criminal cases that result in a dismissal or an acquittal are considered confidential. They won’t appear on the Internet, and you won’t be able to access them at the courthouse unless you are a state worker who deals with child welfare.

The Eagle River Republican presented it on the Senate floor as a justice issue.

“This one is about Amendments Four and Five: privacy and due process,” said Dyson, referencing the United States Constitution.

The rationale behind the bill is simple: If a jury does not find a person guilty of a crime, then that person should not be punished by the court of public opinion.

According to data from the Department of Law, about a third of misdemeanor charges and a fifth of felonies never go trial. Dyson said over time, that adds up to a lot of people with publicly available criminal records who never saw the inside of a courtroom but might be judged negatively when applying for a job or an apartment.

“My guess is that there are 60,000+ people who have never been tried or never went to court who are on Courtview, with a huge impact to them,” said Dyson.

The bill received broad support, passing on an 18-to-1 vote. Anchorage Democrat Hollis French, a former state prosecutor, was the lone opponent. He argued that in a state with such high levels of sexual assault and domestic violence — crimes that are difficult to convict — the Legislature should err on the side of transparency in criminal cases.

“Just say there are a thousand assaults in a year. Out of those, you’ll probably get 250 arrest, and out of those, you get 200 convictions,” said French. “Well, what happens to that information? Neighbors will hear the screams and the cries. The children will see the bloody eyes. But what happens to that information? I’m not saying you have to report everything, but I think you have to be very careful when you start closing off public information.”

The bill will now go to the House for consideration.

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