Federal courts consider limiting remote access to records, a potential blow to rural journalism

From the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues blog

Citing security fears surrounding an increase in deaths and threats to witnesses and informants, the federal judiciary has come up with new rules for sealing and sharing evidence, and is considering limiting remote access to court files, which would be a blow to rural journalists who live far from federal courthouses. The Public Access to Electronic Court Records system is widely used, even by urban reporters.

“Inmates determined to unmask a ‘snitch’ are . . . sophisticated, diving deep into court dockets and decoding sentencing motions filed by prosecutors for clues to who is talking. A proliferation of court records online on PACER . . . and smartphones have made it easier for criminal gangs to find files that could expose cooperators, according to judges and lawyers,” reports Jacob Gershman of The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan of Manhattan told the federal Judicial Conference’s criminal rules committee in April: “Anonymous remote public access to PACER is a source of much of the information that gets into prisons about who is cooperating.” Federal inmates are can’t access PACER themselves, but they can ask people outside the prison to search the online system and report the information back into the prison by phone, Gershman explains.

“Inmates also can ask courts for copies of their own sentencing files, and they often are pressured by other inmates to request the documents—known as paperwork—to prove they kept quiet, the judiciary survey found. In some prisons, according to judges, inmates are forcing other inmates to post the paperwork in their cells so others can come by and read them. At the moment, only the most confidential case files are treated as prison contraband, but inmates have been permitted to possess copies of other types of sensitive documents, such as sentencing minutes and plea agreements.”

Close to 700 witnesses and informants believed to have cooperated with the authorities have been threatened, wounded or killed over the past three years; 61 of them murdered, according to estimates from a recent survey by the federal judiciary’s research arm.

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