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South Florida Federal Court Censors Online Plea Agreements

Recently, the South Florida federal court system has been removing plea agreements from its online court docket. While a plea agreement is still reflected on the docket sheet, attempts to open the online record result in a notice that the user does ?not have permission to view this document.?

The removal of plea agreements from the district court?s website is in response to an internet site,, which boasts it has identified over 5,000 informants and undercover agents by publishing plea agreements from state and federal court records. The site then sells that information to interested subscribers.

In an interview with the Daily Business Review, Southern District of Florida Chief Judge William Zloch said the court is following guidelines adopted by the Judicial Committee. ?This has been requested by the defense bar,? he said. ?The defense wants to keep them private. They even request such files be sealed.?

Not all defense attorneys agree. Plea agreements are ?critical documents they are holding back. It severely impedes our ability to research potential government witnesses at trial,? stated David O. Markus, president of the Miami Chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. ?The more information out there, the easier it is for the truth to come out at trial,? he noted.

While the website has been in existence for several years, federal judges only learned about it in November 2006. That was when the chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Criminal Law sent a memo to all federal judges and magistrates, urging them to seal court documents due to the site.

?While it is important to maintain public access to the courts? case files, it is equally important to ensure that the information that is publicly accessible does not endanger any case participants,? the memo said. ?Therefore we recommend that judges consider sealing documents or hearing transcripts in accordance with applicable law in cases that involve sensitive information or in cases in which incorrect inferences may be made.? The decision to seal may extend beyond plea agreements, the memo noted.

While the court?s plea agreement records are no longer online, they are still available by going to the clerk?s office to view the physical printed document. ?We are getting a pretty significant push from the Justice Department to take plea agreements off the electronic file entirely,? said John Tunhein, chairman of a Judicial Conference committee that is studying the issue.

A previous report on a similar situation, where the U.S. District Court in Southern Florida had engaged in maintaining dual ?secret dockets? of cases that were not disclosed to the public, is available on PLN?s website (?Secret Court Docket Practice Exposed?).

PLN has also reported on Florida state courts ?super sealing? cases and removing them from the docket entirely, thereby concealing such cases from the public. That practice was restricted by the Florida Supreme Court in April 2007. [see: PLN, Dec. 2007, p.13].

Sources: Daily Business Review, New York Times

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