Make court data available electronically, judges order

The state's highest court ordered yesterday that information available on paper at courthouses across the state also be made available electronically, rebuffing prosecutors and victims' rights advocates who testified that such a decision could enable witness intimidation.

In a unanimous decision made after a rules hearing before the Court of Appeals in Annapolis, the judges opposed a proposal to continue blocking computerized information about crime victims and witnesses. Such information, which can include names, addresses and phone numbers, is available in paper form at courthouses.

The hearing came more than seven months after the high court's new rules concerning electronic access were to have taken effect, leading several judges to say they believed the prosecutors and victims' rights advocates who had called for a continuation of the block were asking the court to break the law.

"The problem is that you want all witnesses - even if there is no safety issue - to be blocked," said Judge Alan M. Wilner, addressing the panel of state's attorneys who were testifying. "This court twice has taken that up and said no. A block has utterly no legal basis."

The state's attorneys, including Patricia C. Jessamy of Baltimore and Frank R. Weathersbee of Anne Arundel County, argued that making details about witnesses and victims available electronically could put lives in peril.

"There's a marked difference," Jessamy testified, "between going to a courthouse and having to interact face to face to get the information and doing it anonymously at a computer terminal."

The prosecutors also said they feared victims and witnesses could be susceptible to marketing scams as the state court system continues to improve its computerized database - which could eventually be available on the Internet.

But Wilner said prosecutors and victims' advocates missed their chance to oppose the rules on electronic dissemination of victim and witness information. The Court of Appeals has been considering the issue for five years.

In 2000, recommendations by a committee of government officials to sharply restrict access to computerized court information met an outcry from commercial interests and the news media. A broader committee then studied the issue and recommended in 2002 that, among other things, the same level of access be available for both paper and electronic records.

In February last year, the Court of Appeals adopted rules that fell largely in line with the group's recommendations, and they were to have taken effect in October, effectively ending any block on posting information electronically.

Instead, the block is still in effect at the Circuit Court level. The ruling yesterday, which re- iterates the court's decision in February 2004, means that will soon end. Court employees were evaluating how quickly the block can be taken off.