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Courts bring criminal records online

Eleven federal courts plan to allow people to access criminal case files over the Web in a test program.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said Tuesday it has selected 11 federal courts to provide Net access to criminal case files.

As part of a pilot program adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the principal policy-making body of the federal court system, the "pilot" courts will include one appellate court and 10 trial courts. Among them are the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and district courts for the Southern District of California, the District of Columbia, the Northern District of Illinois, and the District of Massachusetts.

The Administrative Office said access to such records is already or will soon be available over the Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER system, which provides federal court case files for 7 cents a page.

The decision comes amid debate over the potential pitfalls of making public documents--including court records--available online. Privacy advocates have expressed concern that electronic databases could be left open for information mining by employers, marketers, credit and insurance agencies, and others.

While the majority of the pilot courts allowed public access to the criminal case files via the Web, the Judicial Conference voted last September to prohibit Net access to those documents because of potential safety and law enforcement issues. At the time, the Judicial Conference agreed to make most civil and bankruptcy case documents available over PACER to the same extent they are available at the courthouse.

The 27-member Judicial Conference approved the pilot program two months ago; it will re-examine the issues at its September 2003 meeting.