Q&A: Liability regarding court record

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From the Switzerland County Democrat (Vevay):

Q: We printed a Henry Circuit Court No. 3 item about a boy sentenced to pay a fine for unlawful possession of tobacco.

The boy apparently was 15. Do we have any liability for printing the court item? The family is upset.

A: I’m assuming the information was obtained lawfully – either through a court record you were allowed to inspect or copy or through attendance of a court hearing open to the public.

In either case, there would be no prohibition or liability for reporting on the actions of a public agency, in this case the court. So legally you’re fine.

Moving forward, the newspaper may want to consider a policy on when minors subject to law enforcement or the courts should be identified in the newspaper.

Your policy may differ from what the law would allow.

Consider this scenario: The police give you the name of a juvenile suspect held for what would be several misdemeanors and one felony if the crime had been committed by an adult. You print the child’s name.

But then the prosecutor reviews the case and finds that some of the charges were added by an angry police officer who had to chase down the kid and got his uniform dirty.

The prosecutor decides to bring the case before the juvenile court on a petition alleging juvenile delinquency for what would be a misdemeanor if committed by an adult.

In that case, the judge has discretion to keep the hearings closed.

This means the newspaper may not be able to follow whether the child is exonerated or not or even report that the prosecutor reduced the charges.

If that occurs, the newspaper has identified the minor but can’t follow up on the case’s resolution.

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.

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