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Criminal records to be kept from public, media

October 25, 2006|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

California prosecutors are no longer releasing routine information about defendants, including their criminal histories and parole or probation status.

The change comes in the aftermath of a Sept. 20 legal opinion from Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer that furnishing such information from law enforcement computer databases violates defendants' privacy rights.

"It is quite a major change from what we have provided in the past. The Los Angeles D.A. has had a history of favoring the public's right to know rather than keeping information secret," said Lael Rubin, deputy district attorney.

Taken together with a recent California Supreme Court decision restricting disclosure of police disciplinary records, the opinion significantly narrows the public's access to bedrock information about the criminal justice system.

"The public's interest to disclose outweighs the privacy interest of the accused. It may be time for the Legislature to take another look at what is a fair balance," said Thomas W. Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he favors pursuing new legislation to restore the public's right to such information through the news media. "There's a real interest for the public to know criminal histories at certain times and in context," Cooley said.

Newton said the opinion "will almost certainly be universally followed" by prosecutors throughout California, fundamentally altering their relationship with the public.

"A typical situation is you've got a person who is arrested and accused of a violent crime," Newton said. "The public wants to know who is this person. Part of who that person is, is what that person has or has not done in the past. The public wants and needs to know just who they're dealing with."

Indeed, citing the attorney general's opinion, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office on Oct. 13 denied a Times request for information on prior prosecutions of a 32-year-old man arrested for allegedly beating a Chatsworth mini-mart cashier to death with a baseball bat. Through another avenue, The Times learned that the man had been convicted 12 years earlier of stabbing another store clerk 25 times.

The 14-page attorney general's opinion states that prosecutors may not produce records on prior offenses and parole or probation status.

Additionally, the opinion advised against releasing lists of cases in which a witness has testified and names of defendants charged with a specific kind of crime over a number of years.

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peter.hong@latimes.com

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