The red-tiled Newhall Municipal Court in suburban Valencia is the sort of quiet place where speeders sheepishly go to pay penance and where condo complexes go to trial over a gardening bill.
It's an unlikely venue for the latest skirmish over the public's right to an open courthouse, a test triggered by the success of the emerging victims' rights movement.
Citing the far-reaching provisions of Proposition 115, the state's sweeping 1990 anti-crime initiative, the three judges at the Newhall court have issued a formal rule limiting public--and press--access to arrest reports in open files. The intent is to keep secret the names, addresses and phone numbers in the reports of victims and witnesses to crime.
Some other Los Angeles-area Municipal Courts, from the huge downtown-based court to the remote Antelope Municipal Court in the High Desert, have adopted similar policies. Orange County Municipal Courts recently have begun limiting access to the reports.
Legal scholars are critical, saying any such rules run afoul of California tradition and the state's public records laws--which deem court files and police reports open to the press and public.
"If I were sitting where the press was sitting, I'd be concerned," said Alan S. Rosenfield, presiding judge of the Newhall court. "But where I sit, this is not a problem."
There has not yet been any widespread legal challenge to the rules. News organizations, including The Times, have been protesting. And, said Glen A. Smith, senior staff counsel for The Times, "We're planning to take further legal steps."
The overriding reason for concern, according to experts in the laws on court access, is that court records in California historically have been open to the public--even those that contain arrest reports.
Typically, a Municipal Court file begins with a complaint and an arrest report. The complaint, filed by prosecutors, names the person charged with a crime and sets forth a bare-bones version of the alleged violation of the law.
The arrest report, supplied by police who made the arrest, goes into far more elaborate detail, telling what happened, who was involved and who saw what happened. Judges said they use it to calculate the severity of a crime for purposes of setting bail.
For news reporters, arrest reports often provide the first overview of a developing criminal case, including a suspect's earliest statements about a crime and police findings at a crime scene.
That access has been limited as a result of the Crime Victims Justice Reform Act, Proposition 115, which became law in June, 1990, with 57% of the vote. It included provisions aimed at limiting the procedural rights of criminal defendants and at reducing delays in the criminal justice system.
Under the new law, which has been upheld by the state Supreme Court, prosecutors and defense lawyers must trade information about a case before it goes to trial, including the names, addresses and phone numbers of the witnesses to and victims of a crime.
The law says specifically that a defense lawyer may not, however, share those names, numbers or addresses with a client. The point is to ensure that a criminal defendant may not then rely on that information to harass or harm anyone.
That information, however, is readily available in the arrest reports. To fix that discrepancy, the judges at the Newhall court decided last summer to seal those reports in the files, relying on the "apparent intent" of the new law to protect victims and witnesses.
In issuing the rule, the three Newhall judges relied on a ruling issued last April by the Los Angeles County counsel's office that interpreted the provision of Proposition 115 to require restricted access in court files to personal information about witnesses or victims.
The Newhall judges are well aware that court files traditionally have been open, said Rosenfield, the court's presiding judge. But it's been equally clear in recent years, he said, that there is a new variable in the equation, that victims have defined rights.
With Proposition 115 so specific about secrecy, Rosenfield said, it didn't seem to make sense to allow court clerks to hand over information that lawyers suddenly could not disclose.
The rule bars the public, the press and even a criminal defendant representing himself from access to the reports in the court files. A news reporter or a defendant representing himself may, however, make a special appeal to a judge for the files.