A new state police policy on the identification of witnesses and victims in citations has created a lot of problems without solving any.
In December, Col. Frank E. Pawlowski, the state police commissioner, issued the policy for citations for summary offenses, excluding traffic violations but including disorderly conduct, retail theft, harassment and public drunkenness. It said the agency considers victim and witness information to be "a confidential criminal investigative record" under the state's open records law and advised troopers to exclude it from the paper citations.
This policy flies in the face of a justice system built on openness and it shields from public view information that historically has been available. Oddly, the same information that this rule is shielding routinely is provided in more serious crimes such as robbery, rape and murder.
The change occurred after the state's Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts concluded that citations are a public document under the open records law. The office, which manages state courts including the offices of magisterial district judges, created a new form for the citations so they would include a "public access copy." That copy was designed to conceal the defendants' Social Security numbers, which are private, but there was no intention to hide other pertinent facts.
This does more than prevent citizens and the media from accessing information that is supposed to be public. It also creates extra work for district judges, who now must request victim and witness information from police on a case-by-case basis, and it undercuts the ability of defense attorneys to adequately prepare their cases.
Following complaints about the three-month-old policy, the state police say it is being reviewed. Merely changing the procedures to make information more accessible to district judges won't be sufficient. This entire misguided policy must be rescinded to protect the public's right to know.