Legal skeletons in your closet may go online

Pre-conviction information available Jan. 1

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Be advised, say employment attorneys and privacy advocates: With new rules allowing the public instant online access to your Pennsylvania court records, that youthful indiscretion or mistaken arrest may no longer be relegated to dusty file folders in your county courthouse, forgotten and, for all practical purposes, invisible.

Instead, such information is just a few keystrokes away from any potential employer, landlord, or simply curious person with Internet access and a hankering to perform a do-it-yourself background check.

And even if the charges against you were later dropped, even if the arrest never led to a conviction, that legal snafu could come back to haunt you as you apply for jobs, housing or credit.

The online release of this pre-conviction information -- and the potential harm it poses to people who may have been charged with a crime but were never convicted -- is only one aspect of the state's new court records policy. But it was a stubborn point of criticism during the drafting of the new policy, and remains a major source of concern to groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. They argue that the potential for misuse, or even abuse, of the system is great.

"We believe that a fundamental principle of the American judicial system is 'innocent until proven guilty,' " said Larry Frankel, legislative director for the state ACLU. "One should not have to suffer the consequences of being mistakenly arrested. The dangers and the risks involved to a person who was incorrectly identified, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, can have consequences to their housing, employment, their status in the community."

The rules, which take effect Jan. 1, were developed by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to govern which court records should be available to the public electronically over the Internet. Pre-conviction, or "police blotter" information has been public since 1980, available in hard copy for perusal at the courthouse, but the amount of effort a person had to exert to travel to the courthouse and pore through case files resulted in a kind of "practical obscurity."

The new policy represents a change not in what information is deemed public, but in the method of access to it.

Those objecting to the release of pre-conviction information online acknowledge that there is some value to making the data easily accessible. Sharon Dietrich, an employment attorney for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, will now be able to access her clients' records without a trip to the courthouse, but she worries that "a lot of people will be hurt."

"Do I think that, on balance, this is a good idea?" said Ms. Dietrich, who represents people with criminal records. "No. I guarantee you people are going to lose jobs over this."

One client of hers was removed from a job because of a background check performed by a commercial vendor. The vendor did a court records search on the man, who has a very common name, and pulled up several docket sheets on him.

Unfortunately, the searcher failed to click on the links for all of the individual docket sheets, which would have revealed that the dates of birth given did not match the man's date of birth. The vendor, who should have known how to navigate court filings, reported 18 cases against him, when none of those cases were true matches.

Given that an experienced commercial vendor could make such an error, Ms. Dietrich worries about mom-and-pop employers who use the electronic case records system to conduct their own background checks.

"The truth is, a lot of folks are not going to know how to use the system," said Ms. Dietrich. "They may not know that 'non-pros' means the case was dropped."

Currently, those looking to conduct background checks on others go through the Pennsylvania State Police, which keeps a criminal history database. For a $10 fee they will take the subject's name and Social Security number and provide in return a clear summary report of their criminal record, said Ms. Dietrich, decipherable "whether you're an expert in criminal law or not."

Unlike the state courts' online system, the state police screen out arrests that don't result in convictions.

According to the state court system, the public online court records system is not intended to be used as a substitute for the Pennsylvania State Police background checks.

The issue has grown in scope and urgency as more and more information becomes available online, said Ms. Dietrich.

"People who have any little blemish whatsoever" can be affected by an employer who ditches an application based on a very old or very minor legal entanglement, she said. Ms. Dietrich cited another client who was charged many years ago with littering on a public highway.

"Not the most fearsome criminal ever, but he was denied employment," she said.

According to Ms. Dietrich, it is illegal in Pennsylvania to discriminate against a job applicant based on charges that were later dropped, or an arrest that never resulted in a conviction, but it still happens.

"Making everything instantly available on the Internet doesn't help the cause, either," she said.

In Pennsylvania, case records from the Magisterial District Judge Automated System, which included such pre-conviction information, have been publicly available on a statewide basis since 1994, said Art Heinz, spokesman for the state court system. Next, the state appellate courts came on line. The latest, and biggest, piece of the puzzle -- the county Common Pleas criminal courts system -- joined in this year, creating what Mr. Heinz called "a fully integrated network."

The stated goal of the court system was to create a set of guidelines that balanced security, privacy and the public's right to know when criminal charges are filed against another member of the public.

Data such as Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers and street addresses will be shielded from public view online, as will contact information for witnesses, jurors and victims. Full dates of birth will be included, to help avoid cases of mistaken identity where an innocent person is associated with the criminal record of a defendant with the same name.

But whether or not to release pre-conviction information online was an issue that garnered "strongly divergent points of view," said Mr. Heinz. After soliciting testimony from public interest groups, data harvesters, the news media, private attorneys, bar associations and the general public, the members of the internal committee that drafted the rules found there was "no middle ground to be had."

Prominent public figures have pointed out the benefits to society if such information is easily accessible online, especially to families.

"Say I have a child and I live in the borough of Aspinwall, and I want to know about drug transactions in the area," or if a person in the area was arrested for hurting a child, said Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. "That's the kind of information that people should have to protect themselves."

Technology today can do wonderful things, said Mr. Zappala, but unfortunately criminals also have learned to use it against society.

"I think it should be online," he said. "I think it makes it much more user-friendly."

The committee did not work in a vacuum in coming to this decision, said Mr. Heinz. They surveyed the 16 other state court systems and federal judiciary that provide electronic access to records, and found that 14 of the 16, plus the federal system, do allow the release of pre-conviction information.

Connecticut decided against it, in part because of youthful offenders whose paper court files eventually would become unavailable to the public based on the disposition of their cases. If they were on the Internet, those records could remain available.

According to the state court system, Minnesota's decision to withhold electronic pre-conviction data was based on "the fact that there is a high percentage of African-American citizens who are arrested for various crimes that result in a very low conviction rate." It was believed that making such information public would harm those who "will eventually be found not guilty of any crime." It is unclear how integrated the online Pennsylvania court records system is with popular Internet search engines. Mr. Heinz wasn't sure if a simple Google search of an individual's name would yield specific Web docket sheets, or a link to the portal for the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania.

He pointed out that pre-conviction information has been made available by request through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts for the last 12 years with no reported problems.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Dec. 22, 2006) Pre-conviction information on persons facing criminal charges has been available by request for 12 years through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. This story as originally published Dec. 18, 2006 may have been taken to mean the data was available to the public electronically.

Caitlin Cleary can be reached at ccleary@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.


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