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State Law Sealing Victim, Witness Data Takes Effect

Foes say the legislation fails to limit the types of information that can be kept from the public.

September 15, 2004|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill Tuesday that allows prosecutors to keep an unlimited amount of personal information about crime victims and witnesses from the public.

Under Senate Bill 58, which goes into effect immediately, prosecutors and courts in California's 58 counties are required to establish policies to black out certain identifying information about witnesses and victims in public court files. That information includes birth dates, addresses, telephone numbers, places of employment, Social Security numbers, mothers' maiden names, employee ID numbers and bank account and credit card numbers. Defense attorneys will still have access to the information.

The legislation was introduced by state Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) on behalf of a fellow Orange County Republican, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas.

Proponents say its intent is to protect witnesses and victims from harm and identity theft, and strikes a fair balance between the public's right to know and an individual's right to privacy.

Opponents argued, and several legal scholars agreed, that the bill's language did not limit the types of personal information that could be kept confidential, leaving too much room for prosecutors and the courts to decide what should be kept secret and how the files should be sanitized.

Their biggest fear, they have said, was that it could lead to a systematic sealing of all police reports, making it difficult for the news media and the public to monitor the justice system.

"The administration's view is that the bill strikes a good balance between the public's right to view court documents and the privacy rights of victims and witnesses," said Ashley Snee, a spokeswoman for the governor.

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