State Destroying Online Court Records, Raising Debate Over Privacy, Consistency

Pennsylvania has removed millions of public records from a state court system website. State officials say they are treating the electronic copies like paper ones, which are destroyed after a certain period of time. Records of serious crimes are still kept for decades. Edward Spreha, a Harrisburg-based defense attorney, said the change would make it harder to find criminal and civil court records; searches that once took moments could potentially take weeks. Steve Schell, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), said the core issues are consistency and privacy. Schell also said the paper record in such cases is the official copy and removing the electronic copies after paper originals have been destroyed is consistent with state Supreme Court guidelines. The new policy will not affect the results of criminal background checks, which are conducted by State Police. Common Pleas or appellate courts records will be kept indefinitely. “As a public access advocate, you can’t change history,” said Melissa Melewsky, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. “This is a step in the opposite direction, because we’re getting less access.”

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