• Judges tell newspapers: Unring that bell* Tuesday, July 6, 2010

    This is a little off our usual subject in this corner of the Internet, but since most folks are still digesting BBQ from Fourth of July celebrations, it seems pertinent to draw your attention to a little First Amendment squabble in Pennsylvania.

    George Orwell

    George Orwell

    A couple of judges in the city of State College — home of Penn Statehave ordered the local newspaper and the college newspaper to erase from their archives the names of five defendants whose legal records are being expunged as part of their plea agreements and sentencing.

    As defense attorney Joe Amendola told the Centre Daily Times, the local paper ordered to drop the names from their databases, he believes his clients’ right to have their records cleared outweighs the First Amendment rights of a free press. “What’s the sense in having your record expunged if anyone can Google you and it comes up?” he said.

    One of the judges already has said he erred and would rescind his initial order once the papers file for it. If the other order goes to appeal Amendola doesn’t stand a chance — I can’t see any appeals court finding merit in such an Orwellian decision.

    Yet the broader issue is the concept of access to courts. It’s more than simply the right to seek justice when wronged. A healthy society requires openness. And yes, it’s not a black-and-white issue.  I buy the argument that youthful indiscretions should not necessarily become a lifelong albatross. Yet some of these cases involved sexual assaults against women, and one was a 31-year-old woman who faced charges of child-endangerment. Those are much more serious cases than simple lapses of judgment.

    But it’s the broader issue that matters. Retroactively changing the instant records of history lies far beyond the powers we should accord the courts, and government.

    In a lovely display of passive-aggressive spite, the Centre Daily Times’ coverage today of the legal maneuver includes the names of the defendants they were ordered to expunge. Which strikes me as a good idea. Think unringing a bell is impossible? Try unringing a bell choir. From the CDT:

    Ian M. Taft, 24, had charges of aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault and harassment withdrawn by prosecutors in January as part of a plea deal. In exchange, he admitted to indecent assault. He was accused of attacking a woman at a fraternity in December 2008.

    Leeshay Bennaim, 25, had sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, possession of a small amount of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia charges withdrawn by prosecutors in a plea agreement in which he admitted to two counts of indecent assault. Bennaim was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a fraternity in July 2007.

    Chantae C. Cain, 31, completed an ARD [probationary] program in May on two counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

    Michael Vincent Young, 21, had delivery of marijuana, possession with intent to deliver marijuana, and criminal use of a communications facility charges withdrawn by prosecutors as part of a guilty plea to one drug-related charge.

    Tanner J. Rogers, 20, completed ARD in May on charges of aggravated assault, simple assault and harassment.

    * UPDATE: Reality – and sanity – returns. A day after this initial post, the judges rescinded their orders.

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