Naming names is in the public interest

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Delaware attorney general’s office has wisely withdrawn its support for proposed legislation that would have kept the names of crime witnesses and victims secret.

The law would have allowed police and prosecutors to refer to victims and witnesses by fake names or initials in police and court documents. The bill was an attempt to protect personal privacy in the Internet age, but good intentions produced a very bad bill.

It’s important to remember that criminal cases don’t always tie up neatly. The presumption of innocence still applies, of course, and not all those accused are criminals, not all witnesses actually saw what they claimed to see and not all victims are entirely truthful.

Imagine being unjustly accused of a crime. Under the terms of this bill, the public would not know the name of your accuser or be able to weigh your word against his. The public would also have no way of knowing whom you allegedly harmed because the bill would hide the name of the complainant, including businesses, organizations and even homeowners’ associations.

A news item covering your arrest would say: “(Insert your name here) was arrested Tuesday on charges of grand larceny after an unnamed person accused him of stealing from an unnamed organization.” That’s poor journalism, and horrifying criminal justice.

We need to know whether our prosecutors and police departments are doing a good job. We give the government the power to accuse citizens of crimes and to take them into custody, but that power cannot go unchecked or depend entirely on review by the judiciary. The press and public can’t serve as a watchdog on law enforcement officials if the circumstances surrounding an alleged crime are kept secret.

When there’s a genuine threat to the safety or welfare of a victim or witness, a court can issue an order sealing documents and protecting identities. Blanket secrecy, on the other hand, undercuts the integrity of the entire criminal-justice system.

Secrecy will always have its constituents, but the public is best served when its business is conducted in the light.

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