Advocates for a new state law that would block online viewing of some juvenile court records on Tuesday faced a skeptical Minnesota Supreme Court, which expressed concern that it could also hide the electronic files of young violent offenders and questioned whether the Legislature overstepped its bounds in dictating what’s public and private.
Prosecutors, public defenders and policymakers debated the merits of the controversial new law, dubbed the “access statute,” which would allow the public to have access only to the paper records of 16- or 17-year-olds charged with a felony — the only juvenile delinquency cases currently public. However, there would be no public access to the files via MNCIS, the state’s online court system.
Backers say the law, which passed with strong support during the 2013 legislative session, allows young offenders to move on with their lives without being dogged by easily searchable online records, which can hamper employment or other opportunities. It’s a problem exacerbated by “data miners,” who gather records en masse for sale to potential employers or other screeners.
The state’s Juvenile Delinquency Rules Committee last November advised the Minnesota Supreme Court not to adopt the law, which was set to take effect last month, arguing that classifying a record as electronically private yet physically public places additional burden on a system striving to go electronic.
Both sides presented their cases Tuesday to the court, which will issue a decision later.
Judge Michelle Larkin, Chair of the Delinquency Rules Committee, said at the hearing that adopting the law is “simply not workable” for Minnesota’s judicial branch.
Not only does the law flout the court’s authority for dictating what records are public and private, but it creates a complicated system that would overburden clerks whose job it is to provide paper copies on demand, and would continuously reclassify cases as public or nonpublic as they move through the system, taking up time and leaving a high risk for errors.
“Basically the committee asked a simple question: How is this going to work in practice?” she asked. “It’s simply not feasible. There are two classifications in the courts system, accessible and not accessible. There is no such thing as public but not accessible.”
According to the law, electronic records would remain publicly accessible in cases of serious or violent crimes “unless the juvenile and the prosecutor agree otherwise.”
Justice David Lillehaug was the most vocal about the potentially unprecedented caveat, calling the decision to seal records without a judge’s signoff “the piece that I’m wrestling with the most,” partly out of concern for victims’ rights.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman backed the law, saying that “the world has changed since data miners have moved in,” and despite inconveniences, exceptions should be made to protect juveniles. Lillehaug pressed Freeman on what say victims would have over whether an electronic record is sealed.
“We always let the victim know, this is about whether the general public knows,” Freeman said.
“What if the victim wants the general public to be able to find out electronically?” Lillehaug asked.
Fred Friedman, chief public defender for the Sixth District, said the law is designed to protect juveniles who “messed up and never messed up again.” Every day, Friedman said, he’s approached by people in their 40s and 50s who thank the public defender’s office for giving them a second chance.
“Younger people don’t do that,” he said. “Because back then, criminal records were kept on a 3x5 card, and now they’re kept on a machine that the whole world can access.”
State Public Defender John M. Stuart noted that the juvenile courts were created in part to protect juveniles from suffering lifelong consequences of the mistakes they made when they were young and impulsive. Justice Wilhelmina Wright asked Stuart whether regulation of the data mining industry would as easily solve the problem. Stuart compared that to fixing a plumbing problem.
“It’s nice to be able to turn the water off at the source rather than mopping up afterward,” he said.