Saturday, October 17, 2015

Asserted suicide risk shields repeat DWI offender's name in court records.

On January 5, 2015, Carmen Messano, Presiding Judge of the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court, granted the motion of female sports official, who sought to set aside two drunk driving convictions, to be identified in the court's decision by her initials instead of her full name.

According to a November 3, 2014 brief filed by Toms River defense attorney Thomas Cannavo (the redactions are mine), the woman "became highly anxious" after learning that the Appellate Division's decision in the matter "would be affirmatively published on the court's website and that the decision would be available on an Internet 'Google' search."  According to a letter from the woman's psychiatrist, publication of the matter on the Internet would "increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and actions."  Cannavo argued that exposing the woman's name and drunk driving conviction history to the public "is likely to cause [her] serious injury.  Potential suicide is extremely serious and the resulting harm is irreversible."

According to the Appellate Division's April 10, 2015 decision, C.L.M. failed field-sobriety tests and and blew a .21% on an Alcotest after she rear-ended another car in Somerville on April 15, 2006. She blew a .24% when she was again pulled over by Somerville Police on June 6, 2006.  Noting that these two drunk driver offenses constituted the woman's third and fourth drunk driving convictions, the municipal court judge sentenced her to pay fines, serve two concurrent, 180-day jail terms and suspended her license for twenty years.

While I have learned the woman's name through a series of Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and judiciary records requests, I have chosen not to publish it out of concern that such publication might cause the woman to commit suicide.  Yet, I believe that this case--even without disclosure of the woman's name--is of public interest because it highlights how differently C.L.M--a repeat drunk driving offender--was treated from most other drunk driving arrestees.

Nobody appreciates having his or her name published in the newspaper for a drunk driving arrest or conviction.  It is highly embarrassing and would cause anyone a great deal of distress.  But even a cursory search of the Internet shows that police blotters, which list all types of arrests, are published daily.  For example, the October 16, 2015 blotter published in Bloomfield Life (on northjersey.com) shows that Joseph Skidmore, 31, of Bloomfield was charged on October 11, 2015 "with several counts of careless driving, reckless driving, driving under the Influence of alcohol and leaving the scene of an accident."

Even though he hasn't yet been convicted, Skidmore's name is now indelibly linked to this drunk driving arrest.  There is no statute of limitations on Internet publication.  Even years from now, a Google search on "Joseph Skidmore Bloomfield alcohol arrest" will disclose this matter.  But, before publishing his name, I seriously doubt that the staff writers at Bloomfield Life contacted Skidmore to determine whether he was under psychiatric care and, if so, whether the police blotter publication might push him over the edge.

I understand that Skidmore's case is distinguishable from C.L.M.'s because his involved a police blotter publication and hers involved publication of an Appellate Division decision.  Had the Somerset County newspapers picked up on C.L.M.'s two 2006 DWI arrests, her name would have already been outed and she probably would have never filed the motion to have the court publish only her initials.

Yet, I can't help but notice a stark contrast between how Skidmore (and hundreds of thousands of others) are pilloried in the press for an arrest while C.L.M.'s identity was protected by Judge Messano even though she was four times convicted of drunk driving.

While this contrast is not necessarily a problem that needs to be solved, or even one that can be solved, one change that I have sought is an amendment to the New Jersey Rules of Court to establish guidelines and set uniform standards when courts are asked to use initials instead of a party's full name.  On April 16, 2012, I made a formal request for such a rule change to the New Jersey Supreme Court's Civil Practice Committee.  In my request, I used as an example the Appellate Division's November 15, 2011 decision in State v. O.M., Docket No. A-6196-09T1 in which the court inexplicably shielded a third-degree theft defendant's name from its written opinion.  In its 2014 report, the Civil Practice Committee rejected my proposal holding that the amendments I sought "are unwarranted at this time."

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