You can now make bulk data requests for Virginia criminal court records
A new law went into effect Sunday, July 1, that gives people sweeping access to Virginia court records — a goal sought by the Daily Press for years and realized this year when legislators endorsed new legislation to make it a reality.
The win for transparency in the criminal court division means Virginians can search for data patterns. These searches can reveal information such as the average punishment for dangerous crimes in Hampton Roads, the number of felons convicted and jailed for possessing a gun, and racial disparities when it comes to plea bargains.
“When you go to court in this state or any other state, your life changes,” said Daily Press reporter David Ress, who realized early on the importance of having access to public court records.
“It’s vital to know that when you go to court, you’re getting a fair deal, you’re getting justice, and the people of the community are getting justice. So the data here matters because it’s a way of asking, ‘Is justice working in Virginia?’”
How the law works
The law allows people to make requests for bulk data to the Office of the Executive Secretary, which has to fulfill the request in 30 days. Names, birthdays and Social Security numbers are not included in the bulk data requests.
The law also directs the OES to create an online case information database — essentially allowing someone to search by name to see what offenses that person has across Virginia — by July 1, 2019. Right now, someone would have to search manually through each jurisdiction in the state to get that information.
It doesn’t address civil records, something Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, and Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, said they want to address in the future. The two were adamant supporters of getting the law for accessing criminal records changed, along with Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, and state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg.
The bill also doesn’t address data from juvenile and domestic relations courts because those cases aren’t currently online, but Habeeb said that was something he hoped the General Assembly would tackle next session.
Mullin said he’d like to request data related to simple possession of marijuana charges and see whether he can uncover any patterns in the way the state criminal justice system prosecutes those types of cases.
“Our hope is that over the course of the next year, newspapers, public interest groups and just interested individuals will be able to dive into the information for the first time (and) be able to help us make our justice system more fair,” he said.
Daily Press Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Marisa Porto, who served as vice president of content until former publisher Digby Solomon’s retirement in 2016, called the law a win-win for every Virginian.
“Without the court data, Virginians couldn’t remain informed about how its citizens were being treated,” she said. “This new law shines a light on the commonwealth’s court system so we can use that information to determine if we’re really doing the best we can.”
The inability to be able to get this kind of information led the Daily Press to sue the OES for access to the records in 2015. Solomon and Porto were at the helm when Ress was stonewalled in his search for information on legal trends.
The data Ress sought is compiled by the state’s court clerks, who were of the opinion that they controlled their court’s data and it was up to them to say whether to release it, said John Whitfield, an attorney and co-chairman of the Virginia Access to Justice Commission.
Whitfield wanted to know, for example, the percentage of Virginians who go to court without a lawyer. He worked with the National Center for State Courts, which produced the Virginia Self-Represented Litigant Study in March.
“They had a dickens of a time trying to get circuit court data,” he said.
The NCSC received data from 33 circuit courts — roughly 38 percent of the statewide circuit court caseload — leading to an incomplete study.
The clerks’ reasoning for denying requests was that releasing the data could be requested by data-mining companies and prompt identity theft, said Paul Ferguson, president of the Virginia Clerks Association and the circuit court clerk in Arlington County.
It also ran the risk of not being totally accurate past the day the request was fulfilled, as the database is constantly changing.
In the meantime, through the help of civic-minded computer engineers, the Daily Press recreated the database, obtaining 17 years’ worth of circuit court criminal case records, 12 years of circuit court civil case records and seven years of general district court records, available at virginiacourtdata.org.
Circuit Court Judge David Pugh in Newport News ruled in the clerks’ favor in 2016, and the Daily Press appealed it to the Virginia Supreme Court.
“It never occurred to us that we should back down,” Solomon said. “We felt we needed to see it through.”
For an attorney such as Whitfield, having access to bulk data means the sky’s the limit when it comes to analyzing trends.
“Our courts system is the third branch of government,” Whitfield said. “It’s an awfully important part of our government. Having the data of how those courts are operating — having it freely available — seems like a healthy thing for a democracy.”
Reaching a compromise
While the Supreme Court ruled against the Daily Press in June 2017, the legal battle caught the attention of legislators, who worked with the Daily Press, the Virginia Press Association, the Virginia Courts Association and other stakeholders to work on legislation that would allow access to the aggregate data.
“The Supreme Court generally took the position of what the law was, but were willing to discuss what the law should be to try to promote access,” Habeeb said.
By January, the legislators had filed a few bills — House Bill 780 and Senate Bill 564 — and within a few months, the bills had passed with no issues and were on Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for final approval.
“This is one of those examples where two Democrats joined in with two very conservative Republicans, worked with all the organizations involved, put a bill forward together, and it passed unanimously,” Mason said.
Ferguson, the clerks association president, said clerks serve the public and want to facilitate public information requests, but they also want to protect people’s personal data.
“We try to balance those competing interests and we feel that this legislation provides adequate protection for people and at the same time allow for information access that the public could actually want,” he said.
Porto and Solomon said they never hesitated to fight for the freedom of information.
“That’s, at the end of the day, what newspapers do,” Solomon said. “They help people get the information they need to be informed citizens and vote intelligently.”
What's excluded from bulk data requests
-Date of birth
-Social security number
How to file a bulk data request
-Address it to the Office of the Executive Secretary
-Include your name and legal address
-Identify the requested records with "reasonable specificity"