By Eric Mann
The Alabama Administrative Office of Courts responded to a records request seeking data related to expunged court records statewide by saying its court record data system does not track information related to those records, despite a 2014 state law requiring it to do so.
On April 1, Lagniappe submitted a public records request to the Administrative Office of Courts seeking the expungement data it is required by state law to provide to the Legislature, data the law says the office is supposed to keep.Section 15-27-13 of the Alabama code says, if requested by the state Legislature, the AOC is expected to provide an annual report specifying the number of applicants requesting expungement, the number of expungements granted, a list of the offenses expunged and a list of offenses not expunged. The report is not supposed to include any case-specific identifying information.
On May 11, AOC public information officer Scott Hoyem responded to the records request. According to Hoyem, an AOC programmer said the department cannot provide the number of applicants requesting expungement or a list of offenses not expunged because that data is not tracked by its data system. Also, Hoyem said, the AOC cannot provide a list of offenses expunged because that data is deleted from its system and sent to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
According to Hoyem, the only data available for request through the AOC is the number of cases expunged, and determining that number would cost the newspaper $500 in programming fees. But Hoyem said Lagniappe’s request was a “wake-up call” and that the office will work to upgrade its capabilities to track the data in the future.
“This has put us on notice that we need to do a better job of monitoring the expungement data that comes in and out,” Hoyem said. “As of right now, we are working on having the capability so that in the event that the Legislature does ask for it, we can provide it.”
Hoyem said the AOC uses the State Judicial Information System to track and manage court records online through AlaCourt and AlaFile. The program allows court actions to be uploaded and monitored by court clerks statewide. According to Hoyem, the AOC sends all expunged court records to ALEA before removing it from its database.
Lagniappe submitted a pending request for the data through ALEA’s public information officer, Robyn Bryan, on May 16.
Hoyem said the $500 fee would have simply provided Lagniappe with the number of cases expunged since the law was passed in 2014. Hoyem said the fee was high because it would have been a personal job for the office’s programmers. Because no one from the state Legislature has ever requested a report on expungement data, there is not currently an “open record” and any data would have to be compiled by programmers.
“This would be a personal job because there isn’t already an open record,” Hoyem said. “If we had already provided a report to legislators, that would have been an open record and probably would not have been so expensive.”
Lagniappe requested the records in order to accurately report on the state’s 2014 law, which criminalized the publication of expunged court records in the wake of investigative journalist John Caylor’s legal troubles since he was first arrested for publishing the expunged court record of Mobile-area attorney Thomas Scott Smith III on his website, insider-magazine.com.
Smith is currently a clerk in the office of U.S. District Court Judge Ginny Granade, and he was arrested in 2001 on charges related to methamphetamine possession. He was never tried or convicted, having completed a pre-trial drug diversion program, and applied for and received an expungement last year.Caylor was arrested in March on the misdemeanor charges and at a hearing May 3 agreed to take the information off the website until it could be determined whether Alabama’s law is constitutional and does not create an illegal prior restraint by the government. However, despite removing the materials related to Smith as well as others pertaining to Granade from the site by mid-morning, Smith filed another complaint and Daphne City Judge Michael Hoyt issued a warrant for his arrest. Caylor was to turn himself over to police the following day, but has left the state saying he fears for his safety if he is jailed in Alabama and that he believes the law is unconstitutional and therefore illegal.
Caylor could face a $500 fine and up to a year in jail for each charge of illegally publishing the records.
The law, sponsored as a bill by former State Sen. Roger Bedford (D-Russellville), allows persons charged with certain criminal offenses, traffic violations or municipal ordinance violations to apply to have their record expunged. Expungement is only an option if the charge was dismissed with prejudice, no-billed by a grand jury, the person was found not guilty of the charge or the charge was dismissed without prejudice more than two years ago and not refiled.
According to section 15-27-16 of the Alabama code, anyone who knowingly divulges, gives access to or makes public the contents of an expunged court record without a court order is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor. The records include arrest reports and booking and arrest photographs, as well as computer database records of the state. The state retains a copy of the case indefinitely.