Opinion, WVPA Sharing

Opinion: West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals overreacting to Daniel’s Law 

From The Dominion Post of Morgantown:

Regular readers are likely aware of the Daily Report/Area Arrests lists that appear in the newspaper. It includes the names of the arrestees, their age, their hometown and the charges against them. 

Our cops and courts reporter routinely checks the arrest records at the public access terminal in the courthouse to gather this information. Usually included in the record are the name and address of the defendant, officer, magistrate, prosecutor (office address, never personal), what the charges were, case number, defendant’s date of birth, arrest date, bond amount and future court dates. But she noticed, starting at the beginning of this month, the addresses of everyone mentioned above were gone — the defendant’s personal address, as well as the office addresses of the court officials. 

She reached out and was directed to Jennifer Bundy, the public information officer for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, who told her that the addresses for all involved in the charging or prosecuting of a crime — including the defendant — have been removed from public access terminals while the courts find a way to be compliant with Daniel’s Law. 

SB 470 was passed in the 2021 legislative session and commands government agencies not to release the home address, Social Security number, credit or debit card numbers, driver’s license ID numbers and the marital status/former legal name of any state officers, employees, retirees or their dependents.

Within SB 470 is a section titled Daniel’s Law, which says government agencies cannot disclose the home address or personal phone number of any active, formerly active or retired judicial officer, prosecutor, federal or state public (or assistant public) defender, law enforcement officer or any of their immediate family. 

The language of the bill makes sense. It’s not a bad idea to protect the personal information of court officials, law enforcement officers and their families so they aren’t harassed. 

What doesn’t make sense is why the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals believes this should apply to all defendants as well as officials’ workplace addresses (which should be public record). Cherrie James, a financial analyst for the Supreme Court of Appeals, says that “maintaining employment and dependent status for select individuals” is too difficult, and that’s why the court made the blanket decision. 

Unless there is huge overlap of current and former government employees, judges and their families and people being arrested and charged with a crime, it shouldn’t be too cumbersome to withhold defendants’ information on a case-by-case basis. 

Why do we care? A couple reasons. First, defendants’ addresses help us — and our readers — distinguish one John Smith or Jane Doe from another. John Smith from Morgantown won’t want his neighbors to think he was arrested for selling drugs when it was John Smith from Detroit.

Second, anytime the government starts to withhold previously accessible information, it is a cause for concern. The public has a right to know how their government is working; we need transparency for that. 

As it stands, the Court of Appeals’ decision seems like an extreme overreaction and yet another way the government seeks to hide from public observation. 

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