Court limits remote access to witness, victim details

Some information to be accessible only by a courthouse visit


Maryland's highest court agreed yesterday to limit remote electronic access to information about victims and witnesses in court records.

The move, effective July 1, comes amid heightened concerns about witness intimidation, though it might not be enough to blunt pending bills to further restrict remote computer access.

Names of victims and witnesses can be made accessible online, but not addresses and the like, under the Court of Appeals' new rule. To find the other information, a person would have to examine the case file in the courthouse.

The court's unanimous decision came a few weeks after the judiciary began putting basic data about court cases on the Internet. While yesterday's action left some victim and witness advocates concerned, it also was a big step by the court away from its early position that whatever is available on paper should be available by computer.

"We are as interested as anyone is in trying to protect people. But we are not in the business of privacy," Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said yesterday.

Judges said that individual safety concerns can continue to be addressed through requests to the courts to seal information.

Whether a new federal law that limits remote access to identifying information, including names of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking victims, applies to the new rule remains in question, said Cynthia Lifson Golomb, counsel for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. "I think there is a very, very serious issue."

Bills are pending in the General Assembly to further limit remote access to court records to include shielding names of victims and witnesses, including a measure sought by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration.

But Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the court's move might eliminate the need for legislation. "It sounds to me like it solves 90 percent of the problem, maybe 100 percent. There are certain details you need to provide to a defendant," he said.

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