Courts back away from plan to scale back online records

The state court system is backing away from a plan to strip plaintiffs' and defendants' full dates of birth from online court records.

The move was intended to be part of a larger proposal to decrease the risk of identity theft as more court records move online. But it met with objections from domestic-violence prevention advocates and prosecutors who said such a change would make it harder to file for protective orders and charge some sex offenses.

Date-of-birth information is also a key element that The Baltimore Sun uses to verify people's identities in reporting on court issues. The state's judiciary case search is a valuable online index of almost every criminal, civil and traffic case filed in Maryland, and it provides a quick way to find out the age, address and other information about people in the news.

But without complete dates of birth, it would become much harder for reporters to confirm that a particular John Smith is the same John Smith who got a speeding ticket in 1997.

Recently, The Sun relied on the ability to match people charged in a new crime with old charges to report on the violence in the life 1-year-old Carter Scott, who was killed when gunmen opened fire on a car he was riding in with his father. Rashaw Scott, the father, had previously been charged in a murder case, as had one of Scott's alleged killers.

In recommending the changes, members of the court system's rules committee wrote that dates of birth, along with Social Security numbers, are part of a category of personal information that should be omitted from court records "unless there is some particular need" to include it.

But at a meeting Thursday of the rules committee, representatives from House of Ruth asked for an amendment to the rule because it threatened to disrupt the process for filing protective orders.

Dorothy Lennig, director of the group's legal clinic, said that House of Ruth staff members use case search much as reporters do, to get a quick sense of the criminal background of someone who is accused of abusing a client.

And Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said in certain sex offenses the age of the victim is an important part of how the crime is charged.

Questions about privacy are a "legitimate issue" Shellenberger said, but he added, "We have to find out where to draw the line."

—Ian Duncan

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