Criminal Justice

York County agrees to improve public access to criminal court records in response to suit by Spotlight PA, others

by Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA |

Attorneys for Spotlight PA and four other state newsrooms alleged the York County Clerk of Courts delayed access to, improperly restricted, and overcharged for judicial records.
Ed Mahon / Spotlight PA

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YORK — Information on criminal cases will be available faster and with fewer redactions under a settlement agreement between the York County Clerk of Courts and five newsrooms including Spotlight PA that had sued alleging First Amendment violations.

The settlement will bring York County in line with First Amendment and Pennsylvania Constitution requirements when granting access to criminal court records, said Sasha Dudding, a legal fellow for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“That’s important for both members of the media who are reporting on criminal cases in York County and also members of the public who are entitled to know what’s happening in their community,” said Dudding, whose organization provides free legal resources to journalists.

Earlier this year, Spotlight PA joined four other state newsrooms to sue York County Clerk of Courts Daniel J. Byrnes after he shut down free, easy access to criminal court records and instituted practices and policies that slowed the release of documents, according to the federal lawsuit filed in March.

Byrnes’ office also improperly withheld documents and redacted nonconfidential information, obscuring public access that is critical to reporting on the details of a case, the lawsuit alleged.

Dudding and attorney Paula Knudsen Burke both represented Spotlight PA, the York Daily Record, The York Dispatch, LNP Media Group, and public media organization WITF in the lawsuit. Byrnes, an elected Republican who took office in 2020, was the sole defendant.

Byrnes initially called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said his office “has actually expanded free public access to the public, especially to those facing a financial barrier to information.”

“The Plaintiffs are essentially disgruntled by not having unfettered and immediate access to all records within the Clerk of Court’s Office,” an attorney for Byrnes wrote in a March 2022 court filing.

In an email Tuesday, Byrnes said his office “will continue to reflect our adherence to professional practices that serve the media and general public as accorded by law.”

Attorneys for the news organizations pointed to numerous instances where they say the office delayed access to, improperly restricted, and overcharged for judicial records.

During a three-week period in September 2021, journalists from the five news organizations requested access to 42 judicial records. The office provided six the same day, denied access to another six, and redacted information in 32, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit said the office improperly redacted details in several cases, including the name of an adult victim of an alleged property crime and the address of a shooting.

In court filings, attorneys for Byrnes wrote that the office complied with the requirements of the statewide court system and Pennsylvania law, but acknowledged a few “isolated” errors.

As part of the settlement, Byrnes agreed to provide the news organizations with a copy of a policy notifying the public how to access judicial records, and a fee schedule that aligns with statewide court policies.

The agreement also addresses the timeline for obtaining records. Byrnes’ office “will make all reasonable attempts to respond to requests on the same business day on which the request is made, and when not practicable, on the next business day, excepting inconsequential deviations and extraordinary circumstances which may delay access.”

The office must also adopt a written policy outlining how it will respond to requests for judicial records made in person and by email.

Byrnes also agreed to pay $6,796.52 for costs and expenses incurred by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Both sides agreed that the clerk’s office will provide redacted versions of documents in order to protect the identities of victims of human trafficking and minor victims of physical or sexual abuse. But the office agreed to not withhold those documents entirely.

Byrnes on Tuesday said his office is pleased that the lawsuit has been resolved with all parties “supporting and acknowledging that the Clerk of Courts has a legal and ethical duty to protect the identity of crime victims, particularly minors as specified in the laws of the Commonwealth of PA.”

Byrnes’ office and the newsrooms agreed to have employees who make or fulfill requests for court records participate in training within 30 days.

“Hopefully that will sort of bring everybody to the same understanding,” Dudding said.

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