AP NewsBreak: Victim info on state website alarms advocates
Posted April 14
Victim advocates say they're alarmed by the disclosure that an Alabama courts website lists the names, home addresses and other personal details of crime victims.
Those things should remain private, they say, noting that victims of crimes such as rape could be attacked again if offenders know where they live.
"If they know where they are, that will be devastating to victims. We do have a law that protects the victim," said Janette Grantham, director of Victims of Crime and Leniency in Montgomery, Alabama, which helps victims of sexual assault and other crimes.
The Associated Press this week found documents on Alacourt.com listing personal details about rape victims, including hospital bills, in multiple recent cases and others going as far back as 2007.
The information is accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
In a statement Friday, state officials said Alabama's court clerks are not responsible for "identifying information" or reviewing every document for sensitive information.
In one recent case, multiple court records identify a woman who told police she was raped in a student dorm room at the University of Alabama. Her full home address in another state is also listed.
In another case from a decade ago, the name, address and apartment number of a woman who said she was raped in Auburn is also included in the documents.
Records from a 2013 case not only name the victim, but include the bill for her treatment at an eastern Alabama medical center.
"All that is supposed to be off-limits," Grantham said. For rape victims, the only security they have is that offenders don't know where they are, she said.
The privacy concerns came to light because of an identity theft case involving two people accused of using the website to get Social Security numbers of people involved in court cases.
An Alabama law says addresses, phone numbers and "other related information" about victims contained in court files are not public records. A link to the law is posted in a list of crime victims' rights on the Attorney General's official website.
The law also says the clerk or other "custodian" of court records won't be held responsible for identifying information that's included on any document filed in the clerk's office, the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts said in a Friday statement to The Associated Press.
"The clerks just don't have the manpower to review every document that's filed with the courts," said Nathan Wilson, the agency's legal director.
Victims concerned about sensitive information in their court files can notify the courts or their local prosecutor to seek to have it redacted, he said.
The legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama said that's not good enough.
"This just is not a good practice," said Randall Marshall. "I would be doubly alarmed about the other examples of the names and addresses of a rape victim."
In 2000, Mobile, Alabama-based On-Line Information Services Inc. announced the launch of Alacourt.com, calling it one of the most advanced public access court systems in the U.S. The state partners with the company so trial court records from Alabama's 67 counties can be accessed online. The company hasn't returned a message seeking a formal comment.
This month, Brian Colby Alexander was accused of obtaining names, birth dates and Social Security numbers of about 43 people from Alacourt.com, prosecutors said in a federal case. He was charged with aggravated identity theft and conspiracy.
Alexander used people's information from the website to open bank accounts and obtain loans in their names, prosecutors said.
He's accused of working with a woman, Elizabeth M. Barashes, to glean the information from Alacourt.com in 2015, court records state.
Barashes pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in February and is to be sentenced June 27, court records show. Her lawyer said he doesn't comment on pending cases. Alexander's lawyer didn't return messages.
After charges were filed against Alexander, an AP review of alacourt.com revealed that numerous Social Security numbers are listed for people charged with offenses ranging from speeding to murder. Even former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley's full Social Security number appears twice — hand-written and also typed — in a Tuesday court filing in a case in which he's charged with campaign violations.
Most states remove or cover sensitive information about people before the court records go on line, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.
The federal court system's online site typically does not include Social Security numbers in its publicly available court records. That system, known as PACER, posts a notice that it's up to attorneys to inform clients that case files may be obtained electronically, and to ensure private information is not included in the documents.