A committee convened by the director of state courts is reviewing issues regarding the state’s online court records system: Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, or WCCA, which most people refer to as CCAP.
The committee is the third convened to ponder changes to the system, the other two being in 2000 and 2005. Those committees resulted in refinements to WCCA, including changes to how information is presented.
The current committee has more than two dozen members representing people inside and outside the court system, including Beth Bennett of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, and Michelle Vetterkind of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association.
At the committee’s third meeting this week, votes were taken to shorten the period of time for certain kinds of dismissed cases: felonies. misdemeanors, small claims, and restraining orders. The media representatives were among the minority who opposed these changes, along with Assistant Attorney General Kate Spitz, representing the office of Brad Schimel and Bill Lueders representing the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
The reduced display periods will apply only to cases that are entirely dismissed. If someone is convicted of one felony and six other felonies are dismissed, access to the record would continue under current retention periods.
Those current periods are based on the records retention rules set by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Rule 72. For instance, current rules require clerks to keep records of class A felonies for 75 years, other felonies for 50 years, and misdemeanors for 20 years.
The committee voted to reduce these periods for dismissed cases on WCCA. The committee will take up and vote on what the new retention periods should be at its next meeting, set for March 21.
Statistics provided to committee members showed that about 15 percent of all criminal cases are dismissed or result in a finding of not guilty. For small claims cases, the dismissal rate is about 8 percent.
The position taken by the minority was that even dismissed cases have value, because they show what actually happened in the state’s court system. Against the contention that people should not have to be permanently tagged with a charge that ended up being dismissed, Lueders argued that people looking at court records have the ability to understand and appreciate the distinction between, say, a conviction and an acquittal.
“Today’s development is not the end of the world for open government. But it does represent a step back from the state’s prior policy of more long-term access even to records of dismissed cases,” Lueders wrote. “Most worrisome is that it affirms that the way to deal with the potential misuse of public information is to restrict access. Also, there is the danger of mission creep, as, say, that guy with the six dismissed felonies and only one conviction pushes to get this information ‘taken down,’ as it is for others.”
Details of this report were provided by Bill Lueders.