N.H. Supreme Court explores excluding crime victim names from documents

Monitor staff
Monday, September 18, 2017

An advisory committee is weighing whether the New Hampshire Supreme Court should adopt a rule change that determines how crime victims are identified in court records.

New Hampshire does not have a rule that specifically addresses crime victims’s identities in documents. Whether names or initials are used as identifiers – and under what circumstances – varies greatly throughout the state, depending on several factors including which police agency or prosecutor files the case.

The states of Colorado and North Dakota, for example, have laws that mandate victims of sexual assault and minors be identified by their initials or with a general descriptive term such as “victim.” Alternatively, Wisconsin law provides for privacy protection for all victims of crime.

New Hampshire’s Supreme Court justices say they’re looking to the Advisory Committee on Rules for guidance on how the state should proceed.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Lynn, chairman of the advisory committee, said during a quarterly meeting Friday that the justices have “mixed feelings” on the issue and wanted to seek input from the 16-member committee, which includes other judges, attorneys and state representatives.

Lynn told committee members about a sexual assault victim who learned several years after a Supreme Court opinion was issued that it was archived online and that her full name was in the public record. She told the court that her daughter had found the opinion, and did not know previously that her mother had survived sexual abuse.

That situation raised questions about what the Supreme Court – and possibly lower courts throughout the state – should do moving forward, Lynn said.

If all victims were identified simply as “victims” in the court record, “Is that going to diminish the public’s right to know?” Lynn asked, adding, “I don’t know.”

State Rep. Paul Berch, D-Westmoreland, who serves on the committee, asked whether there was a present issue that required the committee to take action, other than the occasional cases mentioned by Lynn.

“We should philosophically discuss whether witnesses should have their names disclosed. They might want to have some privacy rights. Why should we limit it to victims?” Berch asked, noting that defendants might also not want their names made public.

Using one’s initials would create a sense of “functional obscurity,” but not permanently protect the identities of crime victims, said Superior Court Judge N. William Delker, who serves on the committee. Delker explained that someone could file a right-to-know request to obtain information even if it’s excluded or obscured in the court record.

While Delker and others said they didn’t see the rule change as essential, Assistant Attorney General Sean Gill disagreed, noting other states have taken the step and New Hampshire should too.

“Personally, I don’t see a public interest in needing to know the proper name of a victim,” he said.

The committee plans to take up the matter at its Dec. 8 meeting. At that time, committee members plan to review a proposed rule change that would then go before the public for input in June 2018.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)