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When you read between the lines

Courtesy of 6th Judicial District Court

Court clerks made redactions to an arrest affidavit for Shelton Urquidez, a Durango man who pleaded guilty to sexual assault and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The redactions were made to protect the victim’s identity. Urquidez faces up to two years in jail.

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

When news of Dylan Redwine’s disappearance went national, La Plata County courts were inundated with phone calls from media outlets that wanted all the salacious details of the family’s past – from traffic tickets to divorce records.

But under Colorado law, not all of the information in court files was public.

Court clerks, who don’t have law degrees, were left to interpret the law and black out confidential information in accordance with state law. They are gatekeepers of public access.

“We try to be as accurate and good about it as we can,” said Eric Hogue, administrator for the 6th Judicial District, which includes Archuleta, San Juan and La Plata counties.

In recognition of Sunshine Week, The Durango Herald put local court clerks to the test.

We asked a court clerk for a copy of an arrest affidavit in a sexual-assault case filed in October 2010.

The clerk redacted the victim’s name, her address and four words that identified her relationship to the suspect. The redactions were in accordance with state law, said Steve Zansberg, a Denver media lawyer who represents the Colorado Press Association and the Herald.

“It was appropriately redacted,” he said. “They did it right in this one instance.”

(The victim provided the Herald with an unmarked copy of the affidavit, which was used to compare the redacted version.)

A state Supreme Court directive requires court clerks to redact court records if they contain certain information, including:

Identifying information about victims in sexual-assault cases.

Social Security numbers.

Driver’s license numbers.

Personal identification numbers, such as passport, student identification and state identification.

Financial account numbers.

There are other documents and bits of information that are not accessible to the public, but just because a document makes reference to confidential information doesn’t make the entire document off limits, Zansberg said.

“They don’t get to withhold the entire affidavit because it contains the name of a sexual-assault victim,” he said. “That duty to redact exists.”

The Colorado Supreme Court also has instructed records custodians throughout the state, not only court clerks, to use their power to redact “sparingly” in order to maximize public disclosure of information, Zansberg said.

Some documents in the Redwine case reference a parenting plan – a stipulation that covers visitation rights and child support, among other issues – which is considered confidential. Instead of denying the entire document, court clerks redacted sentences describing the parenting plan and provided it to the media, Hogue said.

Because it is a high-profile case, local judicial officers vetted the redacted documents through the state court’s legal counsel to make sure they were in compliance with the law, Hogue said.

“We do have a little safety net,” he said.


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