BY Susan M. Brazas for Lawyers.com
In the past, finding out personal information of people involved in court cases was hard. You'd have to go to the courthouse, search through thousands of records, and maybe the information would be found eventually.
All of that's changed. Many court systems have case information online so anyone can view it. You can usually search details including names and addresses. Because of this, protection of witness identities has become more important, especially for minors.
Louisiana Middle School Case
A middle school in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana has boys-only and girls-only classes. Last fall the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of a parent and her two student daughters who were told the only place they could be in co-ed classes was in the special education classroom.
The lawsuit claims that this segregation is against the law and violates the US Constitution, Title IX of the Educational Amendments, and the Equal Education Opportunities Act. The lawsuit can be viewed on the ACLU web site.
The lawsuit was filed under the name "Doe," and doesn't identify the students by name. The judge decided students testifying can use false names instead of their real ones. Also, parties in the suit can't reveal the students' identities. However, the judge wouldn't protect the parents' identities.
Sealing Sensitive Court Records
A major factor the judge's considered is the students' age. Court records involving children under age 18 are sealed; records and courtroom hearings can't be read by anyone except the parties involved, their lawyers, and the judge. Some exceptions apply, such as when a teenager gets a traffic ticket, or when an older teenager (age 16 or 17) is charged with a crime.
Even in those cases, if sensitive information about the minor could be discovered, the parties might ask the judge to seal the court records or not allow the public into the courtroom. Adoptions, juvenile delinquency, abuse and neglect of children and termination of parental rights' cases are always sealed. In these cases, only the parties named, their attorneys and the judge are allowed to be present in the courtroom.
Businesses might also ask that the judge seal certain court records or courtroom hearings because revealing private business information could be harmful to the business if their competitors obtain it.
Victim and Witness Identities Protected
Some states' laws protect victim and witness identities. This occurs when the crimes involve sexual assault, or the safety of the victim or witness is at risk if their identity is revealed.
Also, many newspapers have policies against publishing the names of victims of sexual assaults. Many counties have victim and witness protection offices where people can go for assistance if they feel at risk.
Finally, some court cases involve highly confidential information about drug treatment and rehabilitation, mental health treatment and counseling and sexual abuse treatment and counseling. Many states have laws making this information confidential, and give harsh penalties for anyone who reveals the information without permission.
You can always ask your attorney to see if your record can be sealed, but for the most part, the record and court are open.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I am over 18 years old. Can I sue someone as John Doe, instead of using my real name?
- What is the difference between sealing my record and expunging my record?