Mixed verdict for courts records

Federal courts will begin putting documents pertaining to civil cases online as soon as possible but will not post criminal case files, which often contain sensitive information such as names and addresses of law enforcement officers and crime witnesses.

The decision, approved by the Judicial Conference of the United States Sept. 19, will make federal court files available to anyone with a computer and a modem—and money to pay an access fee of 7 cents a page.

The Judicial Conference wrestled with "conflicting policies of privacy and access," said Judge Jerry Davis of the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management.

Most court files are public documents, but they enjoy a degree of privacy through "practical obscurity." For example, documents in Davis' Aberdeen, Miss., court house are not easy to get to because seeing them requires going to Aberdeen, entering a well-guarded court house and reviewing them under the eye of a clerk.

On the Internet, however, they would be available anywhere. That could increase the danger to law enforcement officials involved in arresting, prosecuting and jailing defendants and to witnesses who have testified against them.

Internet access also could make public such personal information as Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, medical records and names of children.

Because of the potential threat to law enforcement officials and witnesses, the Judicial Conference voted overwhelmingly against putting criminal case records online for at least two years. And they voted to put civil case documents online, but to withhold information including Social Security numbers, dates of birth, financial account numbers, names of minor children and proprietary business information.

Similar information blackouts will apply to bankruptcy case files.

Eventually the Judicial Conference will probably have to again consider putting criminal case files online, Davis said. "We will be guided a lot by our experience" with civil and bankruptcy cases, he said.

Case files are to be put online as federal courts acquire the necessary hardware and software, Davis said. Case files then will be available through the federal court's PacerNet system, which charges 7 cents a page to view, copy or download documents.

The fee compares to 50 cents a page to get photocopies at federal courthouses, said Dick Carelli, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Money collected through PacerNet is used to support the system, he said.

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