Iowa high court: Records must stay online, even in acquittals

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Iowa Supreme Court held July 15 that online court records of cases resulting in acquittal or dismissal must stay online, although records in which defendants pleaded guilty and served probation under deferred judgments may be expunged, the Associated Press reports.

Ruling on two separate but similar cases, the court reversed two lower state courts that had granted requests to expunge online court records after charges were dismissed. The district courts granted the requests under an Iowa statute that said such information should not be in a “computer data storage system” in cases of acquittal or dismissal. Iowa’s publicly accessible court-records website constitutes a “computer data storage system,” the district courts determined.

After the district courts ordered removal of the information, the Iowa attorney general objected, arguing that the information targeted for removal conflicted with Iowa public-records and record-retention laws.

Thus, the state’s high court sought to answer whether the statute requires “removal of acquitted or dismissed criminal charges from the court docket entries” on the court-records site. The court sought to harmonize inconsistent statutes governing how criminal-judicial records are maintained, who has access to them and the extent to which such records can be expunged or deemed confidential.

“Putting these provisions together,” the court said, concluding that the statute does not require the criminal charges to be removed, “we do not believe the legislature has directed the judicial branch to purge from its official docket all criminal cases that ended in the defendant’s favor.”

Part of the basis for the court’s holding was that some court records exist solely in a digital format. Given the ubiquity of digital records in the court system — some records, in fact, are only digital — the statute fails to distinguish between non-public computer systems and the state’s court-records website.

“If that provision requires case information to be removed, it requires it to be removed for everyone, including judges and other court personnel,” the court wrote. The court added: “We are reluctant to embrace a view that the legislature intended to require the courts to rewrite historical events.”

The Internet has made public access to such records easier than ever, the court acknowledged, writing: “This case illustrates the impact of the [I]nternet on our daily affairs. Dockets always have been public records, but until the Iowa state court dockets became computerized and available on-line, it was not easy for the public to use them. Now, one can learn of any person’s past involvement with Iowa’s court system by making a few mouse clicks and a few strokes at a keyboard.”

The court also concluded that expunging records from deferred judgments, but not acquittal or dismissal cases, does not violate the equal-protection clause of Iowa’s Constitution.

First Amendment advocates praised the decision. Michael Giudicessi, an attorney for the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told the AP the ruling would help journalists and the public stay informed about what’s happening in the court system.

“The notion that all court records should be open is something we should work from,” he said.

First Amendment Center intern Jonathan Anderson contributed to this report.

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