Case Net Castaways: Keeping trials fair or hiding public records?

JEFFERSON CITY — When Serghei Comerzan was charged in November 2015 in the death of Trooper James Bava, his case had been added to Missouri’s Casenet website. Then, for many months, it disappeared.

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The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees defendants the right to a speedy and public trial. Tony Rothert, the legal counsel for the ACLU of Missouri, said several rulings have held court documents to be public.

“When there are particular facts, or a reason is present, it might make sense for the court to close the record or part of this record temporarily,” he said. “It would seem unusual that an entire criminal case would have to be eliminated from Casenet.”

Casenet allows members of the public and the news media to track individual cases. Unlike some countries, Missouri doesn’t require you to create an account or pay a fee for records searches.

Case Net hiding public records

When first reaching Casenet, you can search for cases based on an individual’s name, or view all the cases scheduled for court action on a particular day. You can see who’s representing every side, which motions have been filed, when the next court hearing is, and what charges the defendant faces in criminal cases. But John James, Comerzan’s lawyer, said this sort of openness has backfired.

“We had a situation about a couple of years back in a small, rural town in northeast Missouri, it was a murder case, and the local paper went to the courthouse and got the file, and published all of our moves,” he said.

As a result, James said the trial had to be transferred elsewhere in the state to ensure the jury pool hadn’t been tainted. After charges were filed against Comerzan, he said he asked the judge to improve the security settings on Comerzan’s case, concealing it from public view. He said he did so”out of an abundance of caution” because of the publicity surrounding the trial.

During trials, jurors are repeatedly instructed not to research a situation, view media reports on the case or discuss the case before starting their deliberations. But when somebody receives a jury duty notice in the mail, James said they are not yet under any such directions. They are merely told to be at the courthouse at a specific time on a specific day.

“The way technology is now, and curiosity being what it is, they can simply go to the web and pull up what instances are on for trial,” he said.

At least one judge has confronted this dilemma. Randolph County judge Scott Hayes stated he recently had to declare a mistrial because a juror researched the case on Casenet and began talking to other jurors about their findings. Hayes said members of the public can still arrive at the courthouse in person and ask to see a case file if they can not locate the case online.

“It’s a big balancing act,” he said.

Hayes said he and other judges have started raising the security level on every case that reaches the jury trial period.

The ACLU’s Rothert dismisses the fair-trial arguments as”a solution in search of a problem.”

“There aren’t widespread problems in Missouri of having the ability to seat a jury because people have looked at Casenet and know things about the situation,” he said.

Charging information for the refiled case is not yet available.

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