Alaska Editorial: Sealing some criminal case records is bad for the public

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

A bill up for a hearing Monday in the state Senate seeks to deny public access to documents in criminal cases in which an accused person is acquitted of all charges or has had all charges dismissed, or some combination of the two.

It has a nice feel to it. Why, after all, should someone charged with a crime but not convicted of it have to have that record sitting around for someone to look at? The idea is that they’ve been cleared and shouldn’t have to suffer again.

It’s a bad idea.

Sealing up those records, even after 90 days from the date of acquittal or dismissal as the bill proposes, is to further seal up the actions of our government.

Senate Bill 108 by Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, is particularly vague and broad.

It would add a new section of law that would read, “A court record of a criminal case is confidential if 90 days have elapsed.” But it offers no explanation of what constitutes a “court record,” so presumably that means the entire file, from charging document, to motions and responses, to court orders to juror information and so on, would become confidential. Would the acquittal and dismissal records themselves also be off limits?

The file would apparently simply vanish from public viewing after 90 days.

So how, years from now, would a member of the public research the dismissal of a criminal charge filed against a public official? How would a member of the public learn the details of the allegation against the public official? How would we learn that prosecutors had a strong case but inexplicably dropped the charge?

That’s just one example, but it’s sufficient to raise enough alarm about this bill.

It’s also important to note that an acquittal or dismissal doesn’t always mean the accused didn’t commit the crime. It certainly can be the situation, of course, but an acquittal can also mean that prosecutors didn’t do a good job presenting their case.

Living in an open society can be messy at times. Government agencies make mistakes and misuse their authority at times. Making records confidential in cases of complete acquittals and full dismissals would only cover up those errors and abuses.

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