Legal hotline: Minor victims court records

  • Nov 17, 2016

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  I tried to get a copy of a criminal complaint from a magisterial district judge, and the clerk refused to provide it because a minor is a victim in the case.  Can they do that?

A:  No. Court records are presumptively public under the Pennsylvania and US Constitutions, and can only be withheld if constitutional standards are met.

Article 1, Section 11 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides that Pennsylvania’s courts “shall be open,”, while Article III of the US Constitution likewise guarantees open courts. Both are based on common law traditions of open courts.  State and federal courts have found that an open and accessible judiciary fosters trust in the judicial system and promotes fairness and equality for those involved.   Based on the foregoing, a strong presumption of access attaches to court records and proceedings, and any limitation on this presumption must meet constitutional muster. 

42 Pa.C.S. §5988 prohibits court personnel from releasing the identity of minor (under age 18) victims of physical or sexual assault. As a limitation on the constitutional presumption of access to court records, this statute ultimately infringes on a constitutional right and as such, it must meet constitutional standards when applied by court personnel.  Statutes that limit access to court records must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, using the least restrictive means necessary. Moreover, magisterial district judges are not courts of record, and thus cannot seal or otherwise limit access to court records in the absence of an applicable statute or court rule.

In order to meet constitutional requirements, this statute must be narrowly construed and only limit access to identities, not entire court records.  Withholding the entire record or case file would result in an unconstitutional restriction on access to the courts and an unconstitutional interpretation of the statute. In this case, court personnel can limit access to identifying information of child victims of physical or sexual assault found in the court records, but the remainder of the case file must be released. 

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please contact the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.

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