By: The Associated Press
A second central Pennsylvania judge has rescinded court orders directing two newspapers to delete archived stories and other information about defendants, instances that raised concern over the potential for media censorship.
Centre County Judge Thomas King Kistler said the court also learned Wednesday from the defendants’ attorney that three dozen other orders submitted by the lawyer’s office to the court for approval also included the Centre Daily Times and The Daily Collegian student newspaper at Penn State — an unusual provision for an action typically demanded of public agencies.
The Times had received orders for five defendants. Kistler signed new expungement orders Wednesday on two of those cases and called the initial orders “an inadvertence.”
Such orders typically direct the public agencies to clear a person’s record when charges are dismissed, withdrawn or aren’t applicable for someone who’s a first-time offender who completes a rehabilitation program.
Another county judge, Bradley Lunsford, cited free press concerns in similarly issuing revised orders for the three other cases on Tuesday, the same day the Times brought the issue to light with a story about the court documents.
Court workers were in the process Wednesday of tracking down the 36 other orders, which Kistler said would also be revised.
It’s common for attorneys to draw up legal documents such as expungement orders for judges to consider. Centre County judges usually sign 30 to 50 such orders at a time once or twice a week. Orders are vetted by the probation department and the district attorney’s office before going to a judge for approval.
“The judges check certain things, but we don’t check the language of the orders,” Kistler said Wednesday in a phone interview with The Associated Press. He compared it in part to people not having time to read the fine print when signing for an insurance policy.
In the 41 total cases dating back several months, the insertion of the newspapers into the document went unnoticed, Kistler said.
“This is now something that everybody will be checking on,” he said.
The defense lawyer, Joseph Amendola, met with county judges earlier Wednesday, and said a staffer in his office added the newspapers to the initial expungement orders without his knowledge.
The staffer did so after discussion and e-mail traffic in the office about a separate case in which Amendola planned to file a petition over the availability of information, including an old newspaper story, dealing with criminal records later expunged but still available online, he said.
“The employee meant no harm by doing it. Unfortunately, she just felt she was being efficient,” Amendola said in a phone interview Wednesday with the AP. He had no problems with the judge’s actions on the 41 orders, and said that such revisions are routine.
Amendola still planned to pursue the petition in the separate case. He pointed to examples in which two people recently called him complaining that an employer or potential employer discovered stories or other information on the Internet of criminal records later expunged.
He called it a national issue which legislators should discuss. He said he understood the position of media, “and that’s why I was looking at it from the standpoint of maybe trying to reach some sort of consensus as to maybe how it can be handled better.”
The issue took up time from the court “to deal with a matter that is as basic as the Constitution,” Times executive editor Bob Heisse said.
“Attorney Joe Amendola’s misguided attempts are something that should be questioned,” Heisse said. “This was a clear First Amendment case from the beginning.”
According to Kistler, expungement orders submitted from Amendola’s office dating to February 2009 also covered a private website that allows the public to search criminal information. It was unclear if the website was aware of the orders, or how the court would proceed in those instances, though the judge said officials had not received complaints.
“As long as what they’re doing is legal,” Kistler said, “I can’t send an order telling them to stop doing something that is legal.”