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Von Pinnon: Court's rule changes could cause confusion

Steve Johnsons, Pam Millers and Bill Olsons of the world: We apologize up front for all the pain and misunderstandings you're about to experience. Due to a North Dakota Supreme Court rule change that went into effect this month, the public can no...

Steve Johnsons, Pam Millers and Bill Olsons of the world: We apologize up front for all the pain and misunderstandings you're about to experience.

Due to a North Dakota Supreme Court rule change that went into effect this month, the public can no longer access home addresses or birth dates of people listed in criminal court records.

Though not a federal requirement, the change was made to make North Dakota procedures align with federal privacy rules enacted two years ago.

More privacy protections probably sound great to most people until those protections lead to unintended consequences.

News reporters, for instance, often use dates of birth and street addresses to verify that whomever they are writing about is in fact who they believe it is.

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But it's not just news reporters who are inconvenienced by this new lack of information. Everyone is.

If a Steve Johnson is your neighbor, and a Steve Johnson in your city has just been convicted for exposing himself, how are you to know whether you should let your kids play in the yard? Steve Johnson's home address and date of birth is no longer public through the court system.

But what about the other Steve Johnsons walking around who are not accused of this crime? Imagine how they're going to feel.

That's why we apologize up front to those who have common names. We at The Forum will still do our best to publish further identifying information to help the reader. But sometimes those further identifiers are scant in court records.

Ironically, the addresses of people involved in civil matters are still public under this rule change.

Apparently, the high court felt it was more important to further protect the identities of people accused or convicted of crimes.

Mike Hagburg, one of two attorneys who worked on this rule change for the North Dakota Supreme Court, said it was the court's intention to further protect people from identity theft as more and more court records are accessible online.

He said efforts to balance the public's right to know with an individual's right to privacy has been an ongoing process in the state and federal court systems.

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Hagburg emphasized that while lawyers and courts must not disclose home addresses or dates of birth in criminal paperwork, it doesn't prevent the public from accessing that information through the police or sheriff's departments, which are not required to protect such information.

He said the latest change in North Dakota's rules will benefit lawyers because there will be uniformity between federal and state jurisdictions.

But whatever benefits the lawyers in this rule change will surely be a drawback to everyone else who believes the more we know, the better we govern and the safer we are.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579

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