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Policy on access to court documents discussed

CARSON CITY — Should a police report with a victim’s name and address that is included as part of a public court file be given to anyone who asks for it even though the information could be used to do further harm?

The balancing act between making information accessible to the public while protecting legitimate privacy concerns is a challenge facing the Nevada court system, particularly in this age of easy and instant Internet access, Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty said.

The issue of creating a public access policy for court records was discussed Monday by the Commission on the Preservation, Access and Sealing of Court Records.

Hardesty, co-chairman of the commission, said court clerks often are faced with uncertainty over what information to release to a member of the public or to the media.

A victim’s name in a domestic violence complaint can be kept confidential, Hardesty said. But that same victim’s name and address might be available in a separate criminal case, and a person looking to victimize the individual further might be able to access such information, he said.

There was just such a case in Nevada in which the perpetrator of domestic violence found victim information in a separate and public criminal case, Hardesty said.

If the Supreme Court does not give guidance on access to those sometimes sensitive records, court clerks and administrators will continue to make their own decisions, probably taking the most conservative approach possible, he said.

A rule giving court officials guidance on how to respond to requests for sensitive documents, whether they be autopsy reports or injury photos in medical malpractice cases, would apply some much-needed consistency, Hardesty said.

The Nevada court system could take the approach that all court records are to be accessible to all people, whether at the courthouse or via the Internet, he said. “I’m not sure that is wise,” Hardesty said.

A.D. Hopkins, special projects editor for the Review-Journal and a member of the commission, said he could envision the creation of a class of records that would not normally be available to public inspection, as long as the list was crafted as narrowly as possible. A process then could be put in place to consider exceptions to that policy, he said.

But Hopkins echoed concerns of other members of the commission about whether a court access policy would contradict a new Supreme Court rule limiting sealed court records in civil court cases. Hardesty said any access policy would have to conform with the sealed record rule adopted unanimously by the Supreme Court on Dec. 31.

A draft model policy on access to court records was developed by court officials internally last year. But commission members noted it contains provisions that conflict with the new sealed case rule.

The commission decided to proceed by seeking more diverse representation to help formulate a court document access policy, including more media participation, representatives from law enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and others.

Contact reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or (775) 687-3900.

 

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