Access to circuit court records important for public
October 06, 2010 | 08:01 AM
Not everyone has heard of or used CCAP — Wisconsin's online circuit court access program.
However, at the Regional News and other newspapers and media outlets, we use CCAP almost on a daily basis.
CCAP is the court system's computerized records system. Started in 1999, Wisconsin has provided a complete online index of state records that are considered public information. The cases that can be obtained online include traffic violations, civil lawsuits, felonies and misdemeanors. These free online records are accessed three to five million times per day.
The media, including the Regional News, uses CCAP to follow cases through the court system — to know when an appearance, trial or sentencing hearing is scheduled. Records are also used to responsibly look at past cases that may be related.
But, there are efforts being made to curtail this access to records and everyone should be concerned about that.
According to Bill Lueders, President of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the State Bar of Wisconsin is asking the Supreme Court to expand the ability of judges to remove case records from the system, mandate that records of pending criminal cases or cases that do not lead to conviction not appear on the system and provide a way for requiring destruction of court records after the mandatory minimum retention period.
On Monday, the court was expected to discuss the petition and possibly decide on the course of action.
The public and news media's access to records and what the courts are doing is imperative to our government system.
There are those who feel that there are records of family cases such as divorces and child support orders is nobody's business and should be removed. Others have suggested that records available online are being abused. Some say that cases that are filed and leads to no conviction or finding of liability should be purged from the system. I disagree with all of those opinions.
Ultimately, the public is entitled to know what the court is doing, who has been convicted of what crime, what charges are filed, even if they are later dismissed and when a person brings a lawsuit that is thrown out of court.
At the Regional News, we not only use CCAP to check on those going through the criminal court, but we also plug in the names of candidates who are running for public office or currently are serving. As the manager of the editorial department, I have checked the CCAP records of prospective employees. I also have used CCAP to check out someone's records before going out on a date with him.
Imagine not having access to these records or if records were removed. Think if misdemeanor convictions for drunken driving, assault and battery, domestic abuse, theft, carrying a concealed weapon, drug dealing were erased and swept under the rug. Those records are gone, so it appears as if these incidents never happened.
Not only is there no way for a citizen to watch the legal system, but there is no way to know whether a friend, coworker, sister, brother, or mother is in danger from a person whose convictions or dismissals did not appear in the system. There also are other reasons to continue allowing free access to all CCAP information.
According to a letter written by Deputy Attorney General Raymond Taffora, "In addition to knowing who has been convicted of a crime, the public has a legitimate interest in knowing when a person is charged with a crime, even when not convicted. This is true whether the lack of conviction results from a voluntary dismissal or reduction of charges, a not guilty verdict following trial, an appellate reversal or circuit court's ruling on a question of law. At minimum, these case records show how elected officials and law enforcement are performing their duties and how they are using — or misusing— public resources."
The position of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is that the public is entitled to continued full access to online records regarding their state court system, without constraints or purging of selected information.
That is how it should be. Public access to all records is and should always remain an essential part of our freedom.
Seiser is the editor of the Lake Geneva Regional News.