Dismissed cases should not be on your record forever
Let’s say twenty five years ago, you and your freshman college roommate are riding in his car when an officer decides to stop the vehicle. The officer discovers a small amount of marijuana in the center console. Your roommate refuses to acknowledge possession and so both of you are charged with misdemeanor possession. Within a couple of weeks, your roommate comes clean and admits the marijuana is his. The end result is your case is dismissed, and he is convicted, but completes the requirements laid out by the court and his record is expunged – a fair and just result – except for CCAP.
To create greater transparency of our court systems, Wisconsin created the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website, known colloquially as CCAP. The website is very user friendly and provides a nearly comprehensive database of all cases before circuit courts including every criminal case in the state. Started in 1999, CCAP became a popular source of free information. Employers, landlords, and anyone else relied on using CCAP to get background information. In the days before Facebook and other social media, it was the easiest way to eavesdrop into other people’s lives.
Not all information is available to the public. For example, juvenile and mental health cases are not accessible to the average user. Expunged records also do not appear. Going back to our example, your roommate’s name would not appear for the incident in the car, but your name would.
Recently, the committee that oversees CCAP’s operations released plans to change the policy. They plan to remove public access to all criminal cases that result in a dismissal after two years. The decision to block information from dismissed cases will improve lives. Despite the warnings about discriminating against people based on a criminal conviction for employment and housing, and an advisory attached as a coversheet to every dismissed case, the idea someone would draw no negative inference is naïve.
Removing old dismissals from public access strikes a good balance between the right to know what their courts are doing and preventing collateral consequences for the person who was acquitted of a crime.