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Florida U.S. District Court Rescinds Policy Restricting Access to Plea Agreements

Florida U.S. District Court Rescinds Policy Restricting Access to Plea Agreements

by David M. Reutter

The Chief Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida has entered an order that rescinds a previous policy of limiting access to plea agreements in criminal cases. The former interim policy restricted public access by not making plea agreements available online; rather, they could only be viewed in person at the clerk’s office. [See: PLN, May 2008, p.41]. The new policy makes all plea agreements filed on or after February 20, 2009 publicly available online.

The policy change is a defeat for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which pushed for a nationwide policy of secrecy to protect its snitches and informants. The DOJ stated it was concerned about websites that post information on informants, such as, “for the clear purpose of witness intimidation, retaliation, and harassment.”

The Southern District Court had implemented an interim policy restricting public access to plea agreements after the Judicial Conference of the U.S. Courts, through its Committee on Court Administration and Case Management, asked “each court to consider adopting a local policy that protects information about cooperation in law enforcement activities but that also recognizes the need to preserve legitimate public access to court files.”

A subcommittee of the Southern District’s Ad Hoc Committee on Rules and Procedures was charged with making recommendations for updating or changing the public access policy. As that committee was evenly comprised of representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the defense bar, an agreement could not be reached, requiring an en banc hearing of the Court.

A substantial majority of the Southern District judges voted to rescind the interim policy and provide complete online access to plea agreements. “The sense of the Court is that the public’s interest in access must prevail in this instance and that restricting access to all plea agreements is overly broad,” Chief Judge Federico A. Moreno stated in a January 22, 2009 administrative order. “Other means are available to the prosecution and defense to insure that the public record does not contain information about cooperation arrangements in these instances where the interests of safety or other considerations require different treatment.”

The order does not affect or apply to plea agreements that are sealed by court order in individual cases. All plea agreements made prior to February 20, 2009 will remain restricted from online access under the previous policy; the new policy applies only to cases filed on or after that date. See: In re: Remote Electronic Access to Plea Agreements, Administrative Order 2009-2, USDC (S.D. Fla.).

Additional source: National Law Review

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Related legal case

In re: Remote Electronic Access to Plea Agreements