State destroying online court records, raising debate over privacy, consistency

| Monday, July 2, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

PITTSBURGH — Pennsylvania has removed millions of public records from a state court system website, and while a statewide newspaper group says that's a troubling policy shift, an online privacy expert says it's reasonable.

State officials say they are treating the electronic copies like paper ones, which are destroyed after a certain period of time. The Patriot-News of Harrisburg first reported that the records which were removed involve minor crimes, traffic offenses, landlord-tenant disputes and small lawsuits. Records of serious crimes are still kept for decades.

Edward Spreha, a Harrisburg-based defense attorney who frequently deals with traffic cases, said the change will make it harder to find the criminal and civil court records of his clients, potential clients and witnesses. He said searches that once took moments could potentially take weeks.

Steve Schell, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said the core issues are consistency and privacy.

Schell said the paper record in such cases is the official copy. He said removing the electronic copies after paper originals have been destroyed is consistent with state Supreme Court guidelines, adding that the key issue is protecting the privacy of people whose old records have been officially destroyed. The policy shift wasn't about saving money or generating revenue, he said.

Melissa Melewsky, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said the change “makes finding public information a lot more difficult, and in some circumstances impossible.”

Melewsky said she had a problem with the timing of the change. The AOPC announced the change with a press release on its website on March 30, before removing the records on April 1. That left no time for public input, she said.

Justin Brookman of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit based in Washington, said the move makes sense.

“If they delete the paper copy, they should probably delete the electronic copy as well,” he said. Brookman, director of the center's Project on Consumer Privacy, added that some believe that publicizing every little thing about a person “is not necessarily a good thing.”

But Melewsky questioned that logic.

“These things happened. As a public access advocate, you can't change history,” she said, adding that Pennsylvania courts have traditionally been very open. “This is a step in the opposite direction, because we're getting less access.”

Schell said that the AOPC was complying with its own policy and saw no need to seek public input on the change. The change removed more than five years of records from the public portal so far, more than 17 million records in total.

Schell added the new policy will not affect the results of criminal background checks, which are conducted by State Police. Common Pleas or appellate courts records will be kept indefinitely.

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