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State courts open evidence to public

Date:

By Andrew Doughman, Nevada News Bureau:

Anyone who wants to see court evidence now has the legal right to do so.

The Nevada Supreme Court released six new rules that ensure most court evidence will be open to the public unless a judge produces a compelling reason to seal evidence.

The new rules will go into effect Jan. 27, 2011. Like other public disclosure laws, evidence will be presumed open unless the judge articulates a compelling reason to seal evidence.

If the judge does seal evidence, the rules instruct judges to make that sealing as “narrowly tailored” as possible.

The court enacted these rules following recommendations from a court committee comprising court clerks, evidence custodians and members of the press. The committee found that the state’s various courts had no procedures to deal with evidence the law mandated they keep.

“Guns, drugs, bloody clothing – you name it. If it was submitted at trial, the evidence clerks eventually got it and had to do something with it,” the Nevada Press Association, which served on the court committee, wrote in a statement released Jan. 5.

The problem, though, was the lack of standardization regarding who could access that evidence. According to the Nevada Press Association, clerks in some jurisdictions allowed free viewing of evidence whereas others required a judge’s permission to view any evidence.

The rules require anyone viewers to first submit a photo ID so that the court can take a record of who has seen the evidence. The court also requires a court employee to be on site while anyone from the public looks over the evidence. (The “looks over” part is important; the public can see, but not touch, evidence that isn’t documentary.)

One rule specifically concerns the handling of firearms for evidence. The court instructs clerks to first produce the unloaded weapon and then produce the ammunition – only, of course, after re-securing the gun.

The Nevada Press Association also wrote that the state Supreme Court is expected to release within the next few months recommended revisions to rules governing public access to electronic documents.

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