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Bill eyed to limit access to arrest reports

Posted: April 29, 2014 - 12:02am

FAIRBANKS — Gov. Sean Parnell is considering a bill that would limit public access to arrest records after people were acquitted or charges were dropped.

The measures contained in the bill were a reaction to easily accessible online arrest records that employers and landlords have used to do background checks on applicants, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported Sunday.

Bill Rafferty, an analyst who specializes in court technology for the Williamsburg, Va.-based think tank National Center for State Courts, said the issue of expunging arrest records has been around a long time but was not as prominent when a records check meant a trip to the courthouse.

Court record websites such as CourtView, which is used in Alaska, now make it far easier to look up arrest records.

“People are being denied jobs, they’re being denied housing, they’re being denied all sorts of things simply because they were arrested and they were found not guilty,” Rafferty said. “The effort has been towards either pulling that information completely out of the public domain or at least out of the online version.”

Wisconsin, Georgia and Maryland have recently considered or approved restrictions, he said. North Dakota removes arrest records from online records searches but allows access at courthouses, Rafferty said.

The Alaska measure was sponsored by state Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, who said the bill strengthens the idea of presumed innocence. It was approved by both chambers in the Legislature.

The measure would seal court files in cases where a judge or prosecutor dismissed charges or when a verdict of not guilty was issued by a judge or jury.

Records would remain open if the defendant makes a plea agreement to dismiss a charge in exchange for a guilty plea in a different case. Legal guardians, attorneys and certain other state employees would continue to have access to sealed files.

A “legislative intent” section of the bill asks the court system to seal older files as much as practical.

Assistant Attorney General Anne Carpenetti argued against the measure and suggested a more limited bill written by the Department of Law.

The Alaska Press Club, a professional organization of media workers, opposed the bill being considered by Parnell. Anchorage media lawyer John McKay said the bill threatens First Amendment right-of-access protections of criminal court proceedings.

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