True crime dramas have become a recent cultural addiction. With the release of media like the popular documentary Making of a Murderer and the podcast Serial, everyone seems eager to express theories about real court cases. This phenomenon raises some questions about public records. Without public access to court records, these cases could not have been so widely discussed and dissected. As these dramas demonstrate, public access to and dissemination of court information has the potential to affect perceptions of court cases and affect change regarding those cases—even years later. In light of this, let’s examine what exactly is made public and why.
Freedom of Information
Both the federal and state governments determine public access to government files such as court records. At the federal level, the Freedom of Information Act, signed into law in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, generally protects the right of any person to request access to federal agency records or information. There are a few exemptions and special law enforcement exclusions to this, such as national security information or trade secrets.
State laws concerning freedom of information vary. The Indiana Access to Public Records is a series of laws designed to guarantee public access to any information created, maintained or filed by government agencies. Exemptions under Indiana law are very similar to federal exemptions.
Court records fall under the umbrella of information that is generally available for public inspection. However, some records and record information cannot be disclosed because they are deemed confidential either by law or by court rule. The following are examples of confidential court record information:
Excluding confidential records, public court records are available to anyone and may be used for news publications, academic research and non-profit organizations. They may not, however be used for commercial purposes of any nature. Requests can be made through mail, online or in person, and records may be copied for a small fee.
The public has generally been allowed access to courtrooms in addition to court records. Anyone who wants to watch a trial or hearing can do so under the First Amendment and the common law, as long as a seat is available. There are, however, several exceptions to this. Traditionally, juvenile courts are closed to the public. In addition, the right of access to any court proceedings may be denied at the discretion of the courts. If the courts feel that interest in confidentiality outweighs public interest in access, they may deny public access to a trial. The courts must consider government interests as well as privacy interests of witnesses and jurors for any given case using “experience and logic.”
Due to freedom of information and access, public citizens are granted insight to the court system and other government agencies. Public opinion and interest may at times impact the privacy and impartiality of court proceedings and court records, however, these freedoms are incredibly valuable. Public access to records and proceedings holds the courts accountable by ensuring any errors, oversights, and injustices are perfectly transparent. Ultimately, this freedom helps elevate our justice system to the highest standard of accuracy and integrity.