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A disagreement over a new state law limiting electronic access to some juvenile court records is headed for a public hearing next month.
The law, which was to take effect Jan. 1, would block access via the state’s online courts system to records involving the cases of 16- or 17-year-olds charged with a felony — the only juvenile cases currently public. Paper records and hearings in those cases would remain available, as would electronic records in cases involving serious offenses.
Backers touted the law as a way to allow young offenders to move on with their lives without being dogged by easily searchable online records.
But the state’s Juvenile Delinquency Rules Committee advised the Minnesota Supreme Court not to conform to the law, claiming it will place additional burden on staff members and that the courts — not legislators — are in charge of classifying which records are private.
The extra work to achieve the law’s purpose is worth it, said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who proposed the legislation that passed with an overwhelming majority in the House and Senate.
“We want the courts to be efficient as possible, but the judiciary doesn’t exist for the purpose of being efficient; they exist for the purpose of doing justice,” said Latz, a defense attorney. “There are other values here, and I think it’s well worth the bit of administrative inconvenience in order to accompany the broader purpose behind this legislation.”
The committee, made up in part of judges, prosecutors and public defenders, said that the new law would force staff to continuously reclassify cases as public or nonpublic as they progress through the system, taking up time and leaving a high risk for errors. Clerks would also have to produce paper copies on demand in a system that is striving to become solely electronic.
“Requiring court staff to produce paper records for the public is both inefficient and contrary to the court’s efforts to go paperless, a transition which has already occurred in many court locations,” said the committee’s Nov. 17 letter to the Supreme Court.
While some members supported sealing electronic court records, they reasoned that the law doesn’t give much protection to young offenders because the records are still available at courthouses in the state’s 87 counties and through Bureau of Criminal Apprehension background checks.
A more proper solution, they suggested, would be to alter the state’s laws involving expungement or sealing of criminal records so that ex-offenders seeking employment or licenses by the Department of Human Services “would truly be able to move beyond the limitations imposed by their juvenile records.”
Lastly, the committee said the state’s judicial branch controls access to court records, not the Legislature. “Particularly problematic is the statute’s unprecedented delegation of power to the parties to restrict access to the judicial branch’s records without requirement of a court order.”
Benefit outweighs bother
A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 18 before the Minnesota Supreme Court, but Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman was among those who already have weighed in.
He wrote the Supreme Court to emphasize his concern about private “data miners” who make records available for a fee in cases such as background checks. He said the law is narrowly tailored to keep hearings open but keep out the entities that gather records en masse.
“Juveniles who are convicted of serious felonies ought to have their records made public. The public deserves to know what they did and what the penalty was for what they did,” he said. “On the other hand, those who are found not guilty or whose cases are dismissed should not have their names bandied about. This is a compromise the Legislature adopted after a number of years, and it’s a compromise the court ought to respect.”
A dozen Minnesota public defenders who represent 90 percent of the juveniles charged with delinquency in state courts wrote that the law’s benefit outweighs its inconveniences.
Latz, who proposed the legislation with Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said the law does not breach the constitutional separation of powers, even if it affects court procedures.
“I respect [the committee’s] analysis, but this falls within the realm for them to give respectful deference to the Legislature on this,” he said. “This step by the Legislature was an attempt to give more solid footing so young people don’t have the ladder kicked out from under them so early.”