By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director
When a Grand Junction boy was accused of shooting another teenager in August 2016, the managing editor of The Daily Sentinel decided to identify the 15-year-old in newspaper stories about the incident.
“It may not have been an intentional act, but it involved a violent crime and the use of a firearm that was illegal for the juvenile to possess,” said Mike Wiggins, who has led the Sentinel’s newsroom for the past four years. “We believed that not only general information, but the name of the juvenile accused in that crime, should be made available to the public.”
The stories let readers know that Colorado law allowed public access to arrest and criminal records of juveniles charged with crimes that would be class 1, 2, 3 or 4 felonies if committed by adults. The statute also opened the records of juveniles charged with offenses that “would constitute any crime that involves the use or possession of a weapon if such act were committed by an adult.”
While some news organizations rarely name juvenile offenders unless they are charged in adult court, Wiggins said he evaluates the seriousness of each crime in making the decision. In the case of the accused teenage shooter, he said, “if the law contemplated treating his information in the same manner as an adult who committed a crime like that – making it a public record – we should do the same.”
The law, however, is changing Nov. 1.
A provision in House Bill 17-1204, signed by the governor in May, will prohibit the public disclosure of a juvenile’s name, birth date or photograph if he or she is charged with a serious crime.
The public will still be able to find out that an arrest took place on a particular date at a particular place. It can know which criminal justice agency made the arrest and the nature of the charges. But the juvenile’s identity will remain confidential.
Much of HB 17-1204 creates a process for the expungement of juvenile delinquency records, a goal of reform advocates concerned about the collateral consequences of criminal prosecutions on minors. During legislative hearings on the bill last spring, the provision barring the release of identifying information when juveniles are arrested and charged didn’t get much attention.
Wiggins isn’t happy about the change. “To keep that information from the public, that’s concerning to me,” he said. “I’m not sure how it serves the public interest.”
Also alarmed is Kevin Vaughan, an investigative reporter for 9NEWS who had a long career in newspapers at both the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. The new law, he said, will make it harder for journalists to track serious crimes involving juveniles and monitor how authorities handle such cases.
“We have to evaluate the seriousness of each situation,” Vaughan said. “There are times when we need the names to make that evaluation. There are times when we obtain the names and exercise discretion to not identify (juveniles) at a particular point in time.”
In a 2016 case involving explosives, dangerous chemicals and the sexual exploitation of a child, 9NEWS learned the teenage suspects’ names and confirmed them with authorities, invoking the state law on juvenile crime records. But the TV station decided not to identify the 16-year-olds in stories until they pleaded guilty.
Earlier this year, four junior high school-aged boys in Holyoke were charged with sexually assaulting fellow students. The judge issued gag orders in all four cases but allowed the release of the suspects’ identities under the statute that made certain juvenile crime records public.
While 9NEWS decided not to name the juveniles at that time, Vaughan said it was important to know their names as he looked into the allegations. “There were assertions made to us in town that there may have been preferential treatment, that some of the boys had relatives in high places,” he said. “Having that information helped us evaluate those assertions and consider whether our reporting had gone down all the roads it should.”
Vaughan stressed that it’s not just crimes themselves that are of interest to the public. The ability to check arrest and criminal records “gives us a way to monitor and evaluate the conduct of officials” who investigate and prosecute crimes, he said. “It concerns me that there will be serious cases going forward that the public may not learn much about.”
Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, are looking at how they will implement the new law.
“They’ll have to redact more information with these particulars,” said Arnold Hanuman, deputy director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, which hasn’t yet put out guidance on the change for prosecutors across the state. “Somehow that information won’t be disclosed.”
“I’m trying to figure out what it’s going to look like,” said Rich Orman, senior deputy district attorney for the 18th Judicial District (Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties). “Yes, an arrest was made. Yes, someone was prosecuted. Yes, they received a disposition. But we can’t tell you who it is. What does that look like? I don’t know.”
The new law won’t affect the availability of public information in criminal cases involving youths who are direct filed in adult court. The introduced version of HB 17-1204 would have required that a judge order a juvenile charged as an adult to trigger the release of arrest and criminal records, but that provision didn’t make it into the final bill. The law will continue to allow the release of records when prosecutors file charges against 12- to 18-year-olds directly in adult court.
Follow the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition on Twitter @CoFOIC. Like CFOIC’s Facebook page. Visit CFOIC’s legislature page to track bills in the General Assembly that could affect the flow or availability of information in Colorado.