Tiffany Lawson’s ex-boyfriend kicked in her door, beat her and poured hot cooking oil onto her face, back and legs in Birmingham, Alabama.
The 2013 attack replayed in her mind when she tried to sleep in the months that followed, and left her with burns over half of her body. Her ex was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Associated Press reached Lawson by phone this week, at the number listed in her online case file at Alabama’s publicly accessible website for court records. An AP review of other online case files found Social Security numbers, home addresses and other personal information of rape victims as well as children who have been molested.
Lawson bristled at the thought of victims’ personal information being so readily available.
“I don’t think my address and phone number and things like that should be in there,” Lawson said. “I think it should be the victims’ choice if they want that information out there.”
But many crime victims in Alabama have no choice.
That is because the state’s online site for court records – Alacourt.com – often doesn’t edit out personal information that might appear in court documents.
In Phenix City, a former math teacher’s indictment on a charge of having sex with a student is stamped “NOT PUBLIC RECORD,” with the student’s name blacked out. But a search warrant application in the same file identifies the 15-year-old boy by name.
The site also includes personal details about sexual assault victims at the University of Alabama and other cases going as far back as 2007. Records from a 2013 case even list the hospital bill for a rape victim identified by name.
Most states remove or cover sensitive information about people before the court records go online, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Experts say it can be dangerous for victims to have their personal information in such court files, and that sexual assault victims may be reluctant to report crimes if they know they’re giving up their privacy.
“What survivors tell us is that the loss of privacy during criminal justice is one of the things they fear most,” said Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute.
An Alabama law says addresses, phone numbers and “other related information” about victims contained in court files are not public records. A link to the law is posted in a list of crime victims’ rights on the attorney general’s website.
But Alabama’s court clerks don’t have the manpower to review every document that’s filed with the courts, said Nathan Wilson, legal director of Alabama’s Administrative Office of Courts.
“The court system is very concerned about identifying information appearing in some court records,” Wilson said in statement Thursday.
Since the AP began its reporting this month, “efforts are underway to remind those who file documents with the court that victim and private information should be kept out of those documents,” he said.
Alacourt.com was launched in 2000 and is a partnership between the state of Alabama’s trial courts and Mobile, Alabama-based On-Line Information Services Inc., which hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment.
The website can be accessed by anyone who registers for the site and pays a fee. It’s available free of charge at computers in many Alabama county courthouses.
Concerns about the site came to light this month, when federal prosecutors accused a man of using Alacourt.com to obtain Social Security numbers of about 43 people in an identity theft scheme. He has since been charged with aggravated identity theft and conspiracy.
Each year, more than 100,000 new cases are electronically filed into the online system from Alabama’s 67 counties, according to annual reports from the Alabama Unified Judicial System. Some cases include dozens of documents; others have hundreds.
Source: Associated Press