The idea that juveniles should be treated differently under the law predates the origins of U.S. jurisprudence. Juvenile justice has changed significantly since it was originally shaped by English common law but a significant precept of juvenile justice has long been that juveniles in the system are afforded a degree of privacy.
Juvenile courts nationwide withhold names of most youths who pass through the system. Juvenile court records are usually closed to public access, so that the indiscretions of one’s youth can be left in the past when one learns as an adult to better moderate their behavior.
At least juvenile records are supposed to be kept confidential. The Claremore Daily Progress reports juvenile court records have been found strewn around the old Rogers County Courthouse, “unsecured and available to anyone who happened on them.”
The records, discovered by the District Court Clerk Kim Henry, were apparently left behind when county officials relocated in April to a new court building. Henry was moving some items from a secured storage area in the old court building when she discovered the unsecured juvenile records.
The Daily Progress reported that the courthouse has been left open at times since court operations moved to a newer courthouse in April. The juvenile records were found among “criminal index cards” left behind at the old courthouse. Juveniles’ names on the cards were highlighted in red ink.
Some of the cards identify subjects of deprived child matters, which can include youths who are victims of abuse, homeless, neglected, abandoned or otherwise lacking guardians. The index cards also identify juvenile crime victims. Information on the handwritten cards includes addresses, social security numbers, birth dates and case information.
The Daily Progress reported the cards were “strewn”‘ around the courthouse, but the exact condition of the files is unclear. The paper reported Henry said the files had been “ripped apart” and it appeared some files were missing.
Henry told the Daily Progress the cards are the responsibility of the Rogers County District Attorney’s office. The newspaper unsuccessfully attempted to contact DA Janice Steidley. It’s no great surprise they didn’t get a reply from Steidley, given that in March, she sued the newspaper for defamation. Steidley took issue with a couple of editorial columns in which her office had been criticized. By the newspaper’s account, Steidley and an assistant DA sued the newspaper alleging editors had falsely accused them of criminal conduct.
Time for Court Record Security Review?
Without more information from the media, the courts or somewhere, we can’t say with certainty who is responsible for allowing the juvenile records – and apparently other criminal index cards – to remain unsecured after the old courthouse was vacated. We do know that a standard part of relocating from one building to another, or from one table at a restaurant to another, is to look around and see if any items of value are left behind.
Oklahoma law requires that juvenile records be kept confidential, and provides criminal penalties for the intentional release of those confidential juvenile records. State statutes are not so specific with regard to the obligations of local public officials to maintain records according to prescribed standards.
“The governing body of each county, city, town, village, township, district, authority or any public corporation or political entity whether organized and existing under charter or under general law shall promote the principles of efficient records management for local records. Such governing body shall, as far as practical, follow the program, established for the management of state records,” states Okla. Stat. Tit. 67 §, 6-207.
As trial attorneys, we are reluctant to propose changes in the law when adherence to current law would suffice. We have not explored state law, Rogers County ordinances or enough of the courthouse incident to say who is responsible for the juvenile records reportedly left behind in an unsecured, abandoned courthouse. It may be, however, that Rogers County is not the only county that might have gaps in its records security policy.
A Tulsa broadsheet magazine that features advocacy journalism, This Land Press, in 2011 reported that one of its freelancers was able to access archived records from Tulsa County Courts with little supervision once the writer was allowed inside the records area.
Integrity of court and criminal records is important. The court system provides an assurance of privacy for crime victims, deprived children and other juveniles. If records aren’t maintained in a secure manner, information can be leaked, identities can be stolen, records can be altered or in some cases may disappear. We suggest someone in the state court system take a look at recent reports of unsecured court and criminal records with an eye toward patching any holes in statues, rules or procedures that might result in records falling into the wrong hands.
Free Consultation: Tulsa Juvenile Defense Attorneys
The Tulsa attorneys at Wirth Law Office offer a range of legal services. We work to get criminal records expunged – an effort that can be rendered moot if court records are not secured. Our Tulsa juvenile defense attorneys can represent youths and their families in juvenile court. We also offer assistance to identity theft victims. And what better target could a fraudster pick as an identity theft victim to be a patsy for the fraudster’s other crimes than a person who already has an otherwise confidential juvenile record.
For a free consultation with the Oklahoma identity theft attorneys at Wirth Law Office, contact us at at 1(918) 879-1681 or toll free at 1(888) Wirth-Law. If you prefer written correspondence, you may submit a question through the form at the top right of this page.