Excluding the Political Extremists 


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


Excluding the Political Extremists 

Bridget Dickens

As the Prosecution Project finds new cases, our first step is to see if they should be included. There are basic requirements, like the date range and ensuring they a felony. However, the deciding factor is if the government labeled the case as being terroristic or extremist or if the crime advances terrorism or extremism. Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether a case should be included.

Charles Dyer is a case I looked at which raises questions. Dyer was a former Marine, Tea Party member, and a member of the Oklahoma Patriot group, the Oathkeepers. He posted videos under the pseudonym “July 4 Patriot” which explained his belief system. On January 12, 2010, officers arrested Dyer for raping a seven-year-old girl and possessing an unregistered grenade. Later that year, he missed a court date and was a fugitive until he was found the following week in Houston. Dyer was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison. Ultimately, it was determined that Dyer should be excluded. His extremist right-wing ideology was not enough to include him. 

Charles Dyer’s case brings up an important question: when people are political extremists should we always include them in our data set? The short answer to this question is no. In our manual, we specify that the crime must be “in furtherance of terrorism, extremism, or political violence.” Crime is the main focus, not the person. While political ideology can hint at beliefs, it does not always affect a person’s criminal motive. It’s important to understand what an ideology is in order to understand how why we exclude some cases.

Ideology is defined by the British author Andrew Heywood on page 10 of his book Political Ideologies: An Introduction as the following:

An ideology is a more or less coherent set of ideas that provides the basis for organized political action, whether this is intended to preserve, modify or overthrow the existing system of power. All ideologies therefore have the following feature. They: 

 

      • Offer an account of the existing order, usually in the form of a ‘world-view’
      • advance a model of a desired future, a vision of the ‘good society’ 
      • Explain how political change can and should be brought about – how to get from  (a) to (b)

This definition encapsulates the idea of ideologies being a combination of one’s personal beliefs for a utopia and the actions taken to reach this dream. Ideology is not just having anti-government beliefs as Dyer did. The person must also attempt to put these beliefs into practice, such as organizing extremist groups, sending death threats, massacres, and more. Though Dyer fits this description through his involvement in the Oath Keepers, that did not relate to him raping a child. The rape was a separate action and no sources showed that he did it in order to further his belief system. Our goal is to look is to track political extremism and terrorism are prosecuted. While Dyer’s personality fit political extremism, the crime he was prosecuted for does not.  

It is difficult to imagine the thousands of other cases we would need to include if we only focused on people’s ideology. While all of those crimes would have been committed by someone with an extremist ideology or membership to a terrorist group, not all the crimes would have been motivated by their political ideology. The discussion of whether to include or exclude these people needs to always be rooted in the physical crime. 

Works Cited 

Heywood, Andrew. Political Ideologies: An Introduction. 6th ed. London, UK: Palgrave, 2017. [Excerpt, Chapter 1: “Political Ideologies and Why They Matter”]

People vs. Property and the Ambiguity of Data


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


People vs. Property and the Ambiguity of Data

Megan Roques

When coding my first few cases with tPP, I thought “how could people think this is hard?” The cases were straightforward and simple, the offense was either charged with a clear charge or the motive was very clearly explained and outlined. More often than not, the reality is that these cases tend to be complicated because humans themselves are complicated. Not all offenders have a clear motive of why they did XYZ or if they have a clear motive they don’t have a clear plan of how to demonstrate their motive.

This was the complication I experienced when coding and learning about the David Theiring case. David Theiring is a caucasian man from Madison, Indiana who detonated two bombs: one outside a police station and one outside a judge’s house. Although one may think that these actions were in opposition of the government or a particular candidate, Theiring did not state why he did it. Coding some of the variables such as “tactic” and “completion of crime” were straightforward and simple. However, a few variables were difficult because of the lack of information and the amount of ambiguity in this case. The variable that I find the most time reflecting on was “People vs property.” 

Although no one was harmed in both detonations, was his intent to harm people or to destroy property to make a statement? If he did it to hurt people, was his discontent stemming from a decision the judge made and the police department enforced or were these targets picked randomly? It is easy to get caught up in this web of trying to understand why Theiring did this.

Additionally, it is easy to read the case file and just pick “Property” since there was only property damage. Another way to try to rush through the process is to just assume that he was intending to harm people and property because property was damaged and maybe he thought the people would be inside. However, I believe that there is beauty to the difficult process that is understanding the human mind. When coding cases, it is important to code with purpose, meaning that when two people code the same case there are no discrepancies. 

One of the most valuable things I find when I am coding a case is a surplus of information. Helen Gibson writes of the acquisition and preparation of data for investigations. She explains, “without data there is nothing to build upon, to combine, to analyze or draw conclusions from (Gibson, 69). “The ambiguity of data and information from the offender was the reason that this case was so hard to code.

Again, this is not a flaw from the judicial system in obtaining the data but just a fault of human error. Humans refuse to overshare personal details of their lives or opinions unless they feel like their opinion will be validated. Furthermore, in a criminal setting most individuals are more likely to refrain from sharing information about the reasoning behind their crime in fear of being judged. 

Additionally, the ambiguity of data in a crime is not deemed important to the judge giving out the sentence. For example, if a person pleads guilty for the felony charges he is in question for (such as David Theiring), then the judge has little interest in their actions and hands out the sentence. However, for people (like us) studying the criminal process, the motive plays a big role in the research process. I believe that there should be more information gathered from crimes which may stem from ideological roots such as this case.

Gibson mentions sources of where to find data from defendants such as social media, electoral rolls, webpages, government databases, etc… (74). Some may believe that using individual’s electronic footprint when analyzing their crime is a violation of privacy. Others may believe that the question “People vs. property” is insignificant and not enough of reason to dive into Theiring’s personal life. However, in order to gain a little more understanding in the nature of these crimes, we need to understand the people who are being charged with the crimes.

References

Gibson, Helen. “Acquisition and Preparation of Data for OSINT Investigations.” In Open Source Intelligence Investigation: From Strategy to Implementation, 69-93. Advanced Sciences and Technologies for Security Applications. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017.

Scraping the Violence Project’s Mass Shooter Database (part 2 of 2)

Reflecting back on the quick scraping exercise employing the Violence Project’s Mass Shooter Database (detailed in a previous blog post), I was puzzled by one thing.

In thinking through my own mental list of mass shootings which meet the criteria for inclusion with tPP, I was not able to determine why the 2009 shooting at a US Army facility in Forth Hood in Texas was not included. Why was the perpetrator, (then Major) Nidal Hasan, not included in my initial 13 results?

I decided to investigate. Upon locating the record for Hasan in the Mass Shooter Database, I noticed that he had been excluded from my own scraping approach because his grievance/motive was coded as ‘other’, a category I had decided to exclude. Seeing what to me was such a clearly socio-political crime coded this way got me to think: Are there are crimes in this set, coded as ‘other’ but in fact meeting tPP’s definition of a socio-political motive?

To determine this, I re-ran the same set of procedures: excluding cases prior to 1990, excluding cases where the perpetrator died, then excluding all cases that remained with motives besides those coded as ‘other.’ This left only a 10 cases displayed below:

  1. Michael Vernon
  2. Andrew Golden
  3. Mitchell Johnson
  4. Emanuel Burl Patterson
  5. Nidal Hasan
  6. Riccardo McCray
  7. William Hudson
  8. Robert Thomas
  9. Jarrod Ramos
  10. Kip Kinkel

From this list, I preformed a cursory investigation into the unknown cases using a news aggregator (i.e. Nexus Uni) and a simple boolean search string (“First name Last Name” AND shooting AND year) which inserted the shooter’s name and the year of the incident. This string returned positive results for all cases, and after reading about the various incidents, none met the criteria for inclusion beyond the attack by Hasan.

In total the Mass Shooter Database provided:

  • 23 cases for initial review for possible inclusion
  • 14 of these cases met the criteria for secondary investigation and likely inclusion
  • 9 of these cases were new to tPP while 5 are used for triangulation and ensuring the reliability of our coding procedures

Although this secondary review did not yield any new results (beyond triangulation information for the Hasan case), it did confirm the thoroughness of the original process and the integrity of the Mass Shooting Database’s conceptual coding. Upon comparing the Mass Shooting Database’s coding of Hasan and tPP’s coding, I found no disagreements in the codes, further cementing the accuracy of both projects’ data.

It’s the Government’s Say (Part 1): On the Topic of Variable “State Speech Act”


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


It’s the Government’s Say (Part 1): On the Topic of Variable “State Speech Act”

Emily Ashner

The difficulty that remains most intact as I continue working on this project is to remain truly objective. Luckily, the codebook is detailed in how to dissect the information from source documents and I remain in check by my partner. Beyond obtaining the validity of the project, however, I often find myself hesitant on tagging cases with the value of “state speech act.”

By nature of the variable, state speech act is defined purely based on the government’s definition of an individual. For exact definition, the codebook spells out this variable under 3 circumstances: the individual has been identified of a member of a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) or political group and acted in this manner, the individual has been identified as part of one of these groups, even if the case does not appear to be socio-politically motivated. In summary, the government often has complete say on inclusion of cases based on a group identification. Ryan Reilly (2018) discusses the easy ability to tag someone as a terrorist if they discuss a designated foreign domestic terrorist group (FTO) on the internet, but there are many difficulties of doing so for domestic groups are as the current laws are do not give much insight into these groups as foreign ones.  

By nature of the project, there is obvious flaw in the justice system’s means of prosecution. One of the goals of this research is to identify how these specific crimes follow a pattern of “otheredness”, often driven by race or participation in certain terrorist organizations. Therefore, when coding for an individual I believe should clearly be excluded, the state gets final say in this decision. For example, I am in the processing of coding a case for Michael Bruce Messer, a man who was arrested and sentenced for two counts of knowingly possessing in and affecting commerce, a firearm and ammunition, all of which had been shipped and transported in interstate and foreign commerce. Although in this indictment there was no mention of this, the DOJ mentions his want to join ISIS in a press release on his sentencing. Now the personal hesitation of this resulted from a possibility that the weapon had no correlation with his post online. That could still be true, however, since the government made a clear connection in this article about his want to be a part of this FTO in relation to the charge, this deems a state speech act and inclusion in the project.

While there is an obvious need for the government to clearly state laws and determine aspects to correctly and systematically address crime, there are times such as this case where their say seems ambiguous. I am not arguing the fact that Messer committed crime and could possibly commit much worse based on his want to join a terrorist organization, but I do question how we define and change our opinion on the individuals we code based on simple single sentence additions and descriptions by the DOJ.  

References:

Reilly, Ryan J. “There’s A Good Reason Feds Don’t Call White Guys Terrorists, Says DOJ Domestic Terror Chief.” Huffington Post. January 11, 2018, Online edition, sec. Politics.

Scraping the Violence Project’s Mass Shooter Database (part 1 of 2)

The thoughtful Greg Reese from Miami’s Research Computing Support sent our team a link to a news story today. The email was titled, “Might have relevance to your work” and linked to a story by Vice News, “Nearly All Mass Shooters Since 1966 Have Had 4 Things in Common.”

This article presents a recent data set published by The Violence Project known as the Mass Shooter Database.

Greg was right to send this our way as there are obvious likely overlaps between tPP’s case criteria and the MSD’s. When reviewing Vice’s secondary review, they noted:

“[Mass shootings are] also increasingly motivated by racial, religious, or misogynist hatred, particularly the ones that occurred in the past five years.”

As soon as I saw this I decided to request access to the data set and promptly received a link. The meticulous and easy to navigate data set provided event data on 171 shootings. From there I sorted columns to prioritize certain variable values and trim the 171 events down to those which would likely meet the inclusion criteria for tPP.

  • I began by eliminating any shootings prior to 1990 as this is outside of tPP’s data range.
  • I then used the “on scene outcome” variable to remove all cases where the shooter died on scene, keeping only those in which the individual was apprehended. Since tPP requires the charging of a crime, only individuals who survived their attack could be included.
  • I then sorted by motive. The data set codes for 13 “grievances” and “motivations.” Using these criteria I colored all cases which displayed the following values:
    • Racial element
    • Interest in white supremacy/Notable racism/Xenophobia
    • Religious hate
    • Homophobia

I also included two cases coded as “Notable misogyny” as this is a recurrent trend in some cases we have added to our project. I then eliminated all of the cases which displayed other grievances as these would not likely meet our definition of a socio-political motive.

This process produced a final set of 13 cases which, according to my interpretations of the coding criteria as provided by The Violence Project, likely meet the criteria for inclusion in tPP. These cases will subsequently be assigned to coders to investigate, and eventually coded for inclusion or exclusion. The cases identified (prior to individual investigation) are:

  1. Kenneth French
  2. Colin Ferguson
  3. Hastings Arthur Wise
  4. Richard Baumhammers
  5. Steven Stagner
  6. Chai Vang
  7. Dylann Roof
  8. Arcan Cetin
  9. Nikolas Cruz
  10. Dimitrios Pagourtzis
  11. Jarrod Ramos
  12. Robert Bowers
  13. Patrick Crusius

Our scraping procedure for data sets requires that we first check if an incident is already included in the project. This involves searching the final data set as well as a series of ‘in progress’ sheets managed by coding teams. If the case is already included, as is the case of the 4 defendants underlined, we will evaluate our coding choices based on the new data for triangulation and possible modification. Since the data provided by The Violence Project is more detailed in certain aspects, we may be able to more accurately represent the record within tPP by exploring the other researchers’ coding decisions.

This search yielded confirmatory information on 4 cases, and 9 likely new case starters. These 9 cases will be investigated by coding teams. They will be worked through the inclusion/exclusion decision tree, and if they pass, entered into the team workflow.

Not Your Stereotypical Terrorism


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


Not Your Stereotypical Terrorism

Sarah Carrier

It is a regular day, you are drinking your morning coffee, when suddenly your phone receives a news alert. The title reads something like, “Another Terrorist Attack Strikes America”. You think to yourself, “Great, another ISIS attack, when will our government get it together and get rid of them?” However, you are mistaken. The attack was not performed by a member of ISIS, but rather a member of the Aryan Brotherhood (White Supremacists). Or, perhaps it was performed by an environmental activist against a construction site. Truth is, many people who receive a news alert like the one mentioned above will only read the title, not the story itself, and assume facts based or prior knowledge or prior prejudices. A recent study done by the Media Insight project claims that only 25% of participants went in-depth on breaking news, and 30% said they do not go in-depth on news stories. Readers can find out more about the study here.

There is a huge issue of disinformation being spread to American news consumers. Either people watch a news site that shares in their views and does not give all the facts, or Americans do not bother to go further than news headlines. As a result, their is a common misconception when it comes to terrorism. Many Americans believe terrorism to be similar to 9/11. It is large scale destruction, constitutes loss of life, and is committed by a muslim, member of ISIS, or Al-qaeda. However, the definition for terrorism is changing, there is both foreign and domestic terrorism. The FBI defines terrorism in USC Title 18 writing:

International terrorism: Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored). Domestic terrorism: Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” 

Any violent crime with the goal of influencing politics, or attacking a particular group in such as religion or race, can be a terrorist act. It is not only the Salafi/Jihadist/Islamist people who can commit a foreign terrorism act, it can also be the left or right groups that can commit domestic terrorism. However, it is more common to see Alt-Right groups, for example White Supremacists, perform an act of terrorism. A study done by the news site Quartz, with the Global Terrorism Database, found that in 2017 around ⅔ of terrorist acts in America were committed by right leaning groups. The study and a news article about the study can be found here. 

In the story Three Little Pigs, it is hard to imagine the big bad wolf who huffed and puffed and blew their house down as anything other than a wolf. However, what if another animal came along who wanted the pigs? What if it was a bear, or a lion, or even a dog? It is hard to imagine the story we have been hearing since children in any other possible way. The true can be said of terrorism. Since childhood, many Americans have been told the big bad wolf is ISIS or Al-qaeda. This was acceptable to Americans. Those groups are far away and do not affect everyday life. It is much harder to change the narrative. To believe the wolf is not a wolf at all, but a dog who lives in your backyard. This is a much scarier reality that many Americans do not want to live with. However, this truth about terrorism must be accepted. For example, in Charlottesville, James Alex Field, a member of the Alt-Right, was able to drive into a crowd and kill and injure many people. This criminal act was defined by the United States as terrorism. This is a large and well-known story. However, there are many smaller stories about domestic terrorism that do not make national news. So, next time you are drinking your morning coffee, click on the headline and read the full article. 

References

CillizzaBioBioReporter, Chris Cillizza closeChris. “Americans Read Headlines. And Not Much Else.” Washington Post. Accessed November 1, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/03/19/americans-read-headlines-and-not-much-else/.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Terrorism.” Folder. Accessed November 1, 2019. https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/terrorism.

Southern Poverty Law Center. “Study Shows Two-Thirds of U.S. Terrorism Tied to Right-Wing Extremists.” Accessed November 1, 2019. https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/09/12/study-shows-two-thirds-us-terrorism-tied-right-wing-extremists.

On tPP’s 3-step Verification Process


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


On tPP’s 3-step Verification Process

Izzy Bielamowicz

More-so than in the past, this semester I have come to realize the importance of tPP’s verification process. Throughout my time as a member of tPP, I always viewed multi-person verification as useful, but it was not until this semester, when I became a member of the Steering Committee that I finally understood the cruciality of the 3-step process to its full extent.

Arguably one of the most critical methodological approaches of tPP is that before any completed case is moved into the official dataset, it is checked for accuracy by at least 3 separate coders. First, a case is “claimed” by a coding pair in the team spreadsheet, which is accessible to all team members, by coloring its row green. Once the coding pair has claimed a case, they begin the coding process exclusive of one another. Coding a case individually allows for each coder to process and interpret the facts of the case on their own accord based on the guidelines of the codebook.

Once the coders have singly coded a case, they meet to discuss their rationale behind each variable. If the coders have arrived at the same conclusions for every variable based on the facts of the case and the guidelines of the codebook, it is likely that they have correctly coded the case. Should the coders run into a variable which they have coded differently, there is opportunity for valuable discussion. In my personal experience, it is often the case that one of the coders has missed information within the source files or that they have misinterpreted the codebook. In other instances; however, I have experienced dissenting opinions based on inconsistent understanding of the material. Often, variables which offer issue for dissent are ideological target, ideological affiliation, and tactic. This may be attributed to different assumptions gathered from the known facts of the case, and the inevitable ambiguity of certain cases regarding ideology and plot. Should this disagreement occur, the coders reanalyze the case and agree upon the most suitable code. Once the coding pair has completed their case – should dissent arise or not – they move the completed case back into the team spreadsheet, coloring it white.

Once a case is completed by a coding pair and moved back into the team spreadsheet, it is reviewed again by a member of the Steering Committee, the Auditor. Going through the review process for the first time this semester was the experience which I needed to fully grasp the importance of tPP’s verification process. Assigned 10 cases to review, I began by opening the source files for each case and cross-checking the information I was gleaning with the coding which had already been done. As I checked, I realized that mistakes had been made by the initial coding pair. I proceeded to correct the errors and transfer the updated cases to the official dataset. Without having a third review of the cases I had been assigned, there would have been inaccurate codes in tPP’s dataset, decreasing the validity of the project as a whole.

Ultimately, the 3-step verification process tPP follows ensures the legitimacy of the data. While there are generally fewer cases which require a third review to correct errors than those cases which need rectifying, it is critical that every case follow the same process to maintain the strength of the data. The implementation of coding pairs guarantees that variables which necessitate discussion are discussed before a decision is made. Furthermore, because tPP is composed of circulating membership, a third review by veteran team members on the Steering Committee secures the accuracy of the codes. While not unique to tPP, the multi-person verification process which the project follows enhances the credibility and effectiveness of the data.

Bias in Coding: How Precise Variables Lead to Unbiased Results


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


Bias in Coding: How Precise Variables Lead to Unbiased Results

Stephanie Sorich

As monotonous as coding can sometimes feel, it’s also in these repetitive moments that I end up finding the cases that kick me out of my coding groove. It can feel like inputting meaningless values into a spreadsheet, until a value stops you in your tracks and makes you realize you were making assumptions about a case based upon the values combined. Alone, values are nothing more than units on a sheet; together, they spell out the story of a case.

Take, for instance, the case of Farhan Sheikh, a 19-year-old male arrested in Chicago for threatening to attack a women’s clinic in protest of abortion. The action itself is rightist in nature, however with a non-Germanic name, the narrative does not seem to align with the biases we are conventionally used to about crimes and who commits them. As I filled out Sheikh’s biographical information- name, case ID, and city and state of the crime, I had created in my mind an idea of what this case was about. It was based off of previous cases coded, so to a degree my assumptions were guided by some kind of logic. However, coders getting ahead of themselves poses a danger to the objective nature of coding each case. Gliding over one factor by making an assumption could cause vast misdirection about a case.

Of course, the idea of stereotyping a situation is nothing new. However, ways around coders’ preconceived notions of crimes and terror can be more complicated. Forcing a coder to break a case down into its smallest possible components compels us to break apart our own assumptions, and therefore notice the very minute details that make this project unique. Terror and crime are complicated; our understanding of a case can only be as complete as our ability to code it accurately.

Since I joined the project just a few short months ago, things have constantly changed. New variables for coding have been created (and old cases re-coded), and variables have grown to include more potential values for coders to select. Changes in coding variables can mean the difference in the type of crime created, how the defendant identifies him or herself, and how the government identifies the defendant: all pieces essential to understanding the facts of a case, and even more essential to analyzing it.

Putting a name to a crime (like Farhan Sheikh’s case) is on the simpler end of the spectrum, and I was still personally taken aback by the idea that it “didn’t fit.” Defining our variables means that I do not define a Christian defendant, the coding manual does; I do not define State Speech Act, the coding manual does; and having a consensus strong as such keeps each coder on the same path to a concrete understanding of how each case- no matter how different the circumstances- can be compared with one another.

My own goal going forward is to focus on each case one cell in the spreadsheet at a time. There are textbook cases, of course, but there will also continue to be cases that surprise. I also don’t want to fear the cases that may not fit the exact mould: in fact, I want to embrace them. Every case that causes us to pause and consider the way we as a team function only forces us to be better in our techniques and more critical of our own choices. At the early stage I’m in, the more critical I can be of myself and my participation, the better.

For more information on Farhan Sheikh’s case: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/08/20/online-violent-threat-meme-site-chicago/

 

Paying for Court Documents – An Infringement of Rights?


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


Paying for Court Documents – An Infringement of Rights?

Morgan Demboski

When researching cases for the project, court documents are the jackpot of source files. I always feel a tiny bit of excitement when I am able to find a free indictment or plea document online. However, I think my excitement stems from the sad truth that court records, for the most part, are often really difficult to acquire, either due to not updated and unorganized databases or
required payments for searches and downloads. Whether I am searching for a federal case on a website, like PACER, or for a state case on a district or court website, there are often many obstacles I must face in order to collect the records I need. This has made me think about how difficult is it really to access source documents, and also whether we should even be required to pay for court documents at all.
Since most of the cases we add to our database are of federal jurisdiction, I will begin by discussing the issues and complications with accessing federal records. The tPP team often looks to PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, to collect court documents; however, only one of two members our team has access to the site because of the membership costs. Pacer holds more than 300 million documents from over 90 district courts and 13 appellate circuits, which is basically a goldmine to an over-excited researcher, but you have to pay “$30 for the search, plus $0.10 per page per document delivered electronically, for up to 5 documents (30 page cap applies)”(Hughes; PACER). Calling the program the Public Access to Court Electronic Records is a little misleading because the public does not have the ability to access the documents as they wish, with those who cannot afford it being unfairly disadvantaged. What’s even worse is that a lot of the money that PACER users pay in order to search names and access documents is not even spent on PACER itself (Browdie). A good bulk goes into other areas, such as paying for technology for courtrooms (See graph below):
In a list compiled by All Jarmanning of Boston University, I was able to view the various multitude of court and district websites containing court records for each state in the U.S. By doing this, I was able to get an idea of just how many states require a fee to search, access, or download court cases. There are many state court cases that I can access for free, such as those in Arizona, Connecticut, and New Mexico; however, each of these differs in the number of cases or courts that are available, the amount of information they provide, and the documents they allow users to view. For example, the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County provides case information but does not provide any court documents (See example below).
There are also states in which some court cases and districts are accessible for free, and others are not. In California, various areas have different court sites, but more than five of these courts require around $1 per page. In Kansas, the district courts charge $1.50 per search, even if the search comes up empty; however, the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals records are free. In addition, there are states in which documents and information are not accessible unless a fee is paid. In Alabama, it costs $10 per name or case. In Colorado, it costs $7 if you want to conduct a statewide search ($2 if you only want to search in Denver; $5 if you want to search everywhere but Denver; $7 for a combined search), even if you come up with nothing. Furthermore, the site does not even provide online access to documents, only basic information.
In 1996, President Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act which mainly protects any person’s right to request access to federal records or information. Though there are some exceptions to this such as court information concerning juveniles or mental health commitment, court records generally fall in the realm of information that is available to the public. Therefore, I am led to ask the question: why are we spending hundreds of dollars on documents that technically should be free?
Works Cited:
Browdie, B. (2016, October 14). PACER fees for US court documents are facing a legal challenge of their own [News Outlet]. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from Quartz website: https://qz.com/800076/the-cost-of-electronic-access-to-us-court-filings-is-facing-a-major-legal-test-of-its-own/
Court Records and Proceedings: What is Public and Why? (2017, April 18). Retrieved October 30, 2019, from Connor Reporting website: https://connorreporting.com/court-records-proceedings-public/
Criminal Court Case Information—Case History [Government]. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2019, from The Judicial Branch of Arizona Maricopa County website: http://www.superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/docket/CriminalCourtCases/caseInfo.asp?caseNumber=CR2010-142511
Hughes, S. (2019, March 20). The Federal Courts Are Running An Online Scam [News Outlet]. Retrieved October 30, 2019, from POLITICO Magazine website:
PACER – Frequently Asked Questions [Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts]. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2019, from PACER website: https://www.pacer.gov/psc/faq.html