Arkansas judge says public arrest records will remain sealed

An Arkansas circuit judge says he and his colleagues in two counties voted to continue their practice of sealing arrest records for felon criminal cases. They are acting they say to guarantee a fair trial in spite of an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling in 1990 that the records are public information. -DB

The Morning News
Jan. 23, 2009

PINE BLUFF — A judge says that while arrest affidavits are public record, they will remain closed in criminal cases in Jefferson and Lincoln counties out of concern for the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

Circuit Judge Berlin Jones says he and the other state judges in the two counties voted to continue to routinely seal all probable-cause arrest affidavits for felony criminal cases.

The affidavits include evidence against a defendant used to secure arrest and detention. The judges in the two counties are the only ones in the state who routinely seal them, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Friday.

In a 1990 case, the Pine Bluff Commercial sued the local police department after the department withheld an arrest report and other records in a murder case. James J. Jones was arrested Dec. 20, 1990, in the slaying of Lenora King, but the arrest was not disclosed publicly until six days later.

Circuit Judge Randall Williams dismissed the newspaper’s lawsuit but, on appeal, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed the judge’s decision. The Supreme Court said jail logs, arrest records and information sheets are open to public inspection.

Rick Peltz, an expert on the Freedom of Information Act, says the courts in Jefferson and Lincoln counties were being overly cautious. He says the judges should consider other options to ensure a fair trial, including admonishing jurors about what they read or hear or moving the trial to a different localation.
“Of course, we want impartial juries, but there are a lot of ways to accomplish that and weigh the public’s right to know in the balance,” said Peltz, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School.

Jones said judges in the 11th Judicial District-West began sealing the documents because potential jurors read newspaper stories about the criminal cases, making it difficult to select a jury.

“It was creating quite a problem because we had to go through a lot more jurors, and it was reaching the point where sometimes we wouldn’t get a jury from the panel because of the news story,” Jones said. “In the interest of justice and to avoid a mistrial due to publicity and the possibility of throwing the case out, we developed that seal.”

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette polled the state’s 28 prosecutors, beginning last fall, on whether they routinely seal probable-cause arrest affidavits. Only Prosecutor Stevan Dalrymple, who handles cases in the two counties, said he asked judges to routinely seal the documents.

Others said they usually file the arrest affidavits in circuit court, where the records are available to anyone. In rare cases, prosecutors ask judges to seal an affidavit to protect witnesses and the names of underage victims or other minors. Occasionally, a judge will seal an affidavit if a prosecutor thinks release of the information will hinder the arrest of additional suspects.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press