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Alabama to form task force amid concerns about court website

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 14, 2012, file photo, attorney Wendy Murphy poses for a photo in the law library at the New England School of Law in Boston. Alabama officials said they're forming a task force to address concerns about private information about victims and others being posted to a state website for court records. Alabama’s crime victims’ rights law states that addresses, phone numbers and “other related information” about victims will not be included in public records. “You’re saying in writing that your personal information will be protected, and in fact it’s not true,” Murphy said. “To tell a victim they have a right that’s not enforceable is, I think, the ultimate betrayal.” (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Alabama is forming a task force and taking other actions to address concerns about private information about victims and others at a state website for court records, court officials said this week.

The steps are being taken after a review of Alacourt.com by The Associated Press found names, home addresses, telephone numbers and other information about rape victims and children who have been molested.

Crime victims want personal information removed from the site, which allows public access to Alabama’s trial court records.

“The Alabama court system is very concerned with private identifying information being made available for public view,” Nathan Wilson, legal director of Alabama’s Administrative Office of Courts, said in a statement.

Many documents at the site are correctly redacted to remove sensitive information, but “it is evident that this is not occurring in every case,” the statement said.

State officials say they’re also adding a notice to the website, warning lawyers and others who upload documents to remove sensitive information before they go on public view.

Concerns about the site arose this month, when federal prosecutors charged a man with identity theft. Prosecutors say he used Alacourt.com to obtain Social Security numbers of about 43 people to commit crimes.

The site also includes personal details about sexual assault victims across the state going as far back as 2007. The home address of a woman who reported being sexually assaulted at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2013 appears in two separate documents in her online case file.

After the AP on April 14 reported that another case lists the home address of a rape victim at the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus, that document was removed from the site. But two other documents in the case — both of them still online Thursday — identify her by name.

Last year, a former high school teacher outside Montgomery was indicted on charges of sexual contact with a 17-year-old student. In a separate case that year, a former middle school teacher near Mobile was charged with stalking a 17-year-old student. In both cases, the teenagers’ names, full addresses and telephone numbers are listed in the online records.

Alacourt.com was launched in 2000 and is a partnership between the state of Alabama’s trial courts and Mobile, Alabama-based On-Line Information Services Inc.

“While the Alabama Courts control the content provided on alacourt.com, On-Line Information Services Inc. is committed to working with the Alabama Courts to ensure that sensitive information remains private and not subject to public disclosure,” the company said in a statement.

Alabama’s crime victims’ rights law states that addresses, phone numbers and “other related information” about victims will not be included in public records. A link to the law is posted in a list of crime victims’ rights on the attorney general’s website.

But those laws are typically unenforceable, and a “false promise” to victims that their privacy will be protected, said Wendy Murphy, an attorney who has litigated cases nationwide and is director of the Women’s and Children’s Advocacy Project at New England Law ‘ Boston.

“You’re saying in writing that your personal information will be protected, and in fact it’s not true,” Murphy said. “To tell a victim they have a right that’s not enforceable is, I think, the ultimate betrayal.”

Murphy said people involved in court proceedings have a constitutional right to privacy, and that information such as home addresses and Social Security numbers is rarely relevant to a case anyway so there’s no need to make it public.

“When the government is going to use its heavy hand to force people to participate in legal proceedings, it has a primary obligation to protect against the gratuitous dissemination of personal information,” Murphy said.

Alacourt.com can be accessed by anyone who registers for the site and pays a fee. It’s available free of charge at computers in many Alabama county courthouses.

Many of the records that end up on the site are filed by prosecutors and lawyers. Alabama prosecutors are not seeking to harm anyone, but often include personally identifying details about a defendant to ensure the right person is being arrested and charged, said Barry Matson, who heads the Alabama District Attorneys Association.

“The victim should never be victimized again in any way,” Matson said.

At the heart of the issue regarding sensitive information is “how is it transmitted, and who has access and how,” he said.

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