Editorial: It may be time for some privacy tweaks

The Southold Justice Court roundup appeared in last Thursday's issue of The Suffolk Times. (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson)
A Southold Justice Court roundup appeared in last Thursday’s issue of The Suffolk Times. (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson)

Newspapers — including this one — are often criticized for reporting on people who are arrested, but not following up on those cases as they wend their way through local and regional court systems to report on the outcomes. It’s pointed out, often by the accused themselves or their loved ones, that many of those charged with a crime are ultimately found not guilty or have criminal charges against them thrown out completely. Yet that information often goes unreported.

This newspaper has taken such criticisms to heart.

Last Thursday, The Suffolk Times for the first time in several years, published a Justice Court roundup that detailed the results of some recently adjudicated cases. But after the report was published, Southold Town was notified by officials with the New York State Unified Court System that the town was not allowed to release such court calendar outcomes to the public. This, even though the actual arrests were very much public information.

After some research, the newspaper found that under the very comprehensive section 160.55 of New York State Criminal Procedure Law, cases in which defendants are found not guilty or for whom charges are thrown out are automatically and permanently sealed from public view.

That means any information on those cases provided to the public, even later the same day, is done in violation of state law.

So, the only way to report on all those court outcomes would be for a Suffolk Times reporter to be in court at the moment a disposition is reached and announced in the public setting. While that’s often the case with high-profile arrests and charges, such coverage would be impossible for lesser cases, considering the sheer number of arrests reported. And this newspaper has no intention of refraining from publishing information on arrests that occur within our town.

While the law as outlined in section 160.55 is designed to protect the accused, we live in an age where arrest reports are disseminated not only in print but online, where they’re readily available for several years. It hardly makes sense for courts to be disallowed from releasing information that could advance and clarify a matter of record.

While most could agree accusations that don’t hold up in court should be sealed, simple court case outcomes — which are, after all, announced in a public setting — should be available for a period of time beyond the actual moment of announcement, perhaps a week or two. Not only for the public’s interest but for that of the accused.