We're a "news of record" newspaper, meaning we print legal notices and key information from the cops and the courts.
Other than the legals, most of that stuff is found on Page 2 of the paper, which, our studies have shown, is one of the best-read pages in the paper. I'm not surprised, because there's an awful lot of people who seem to enjoy seeing who got in trouble, or who is getting married, or who got divorced, etc. It's what we call in this business "back fence gossip" news.
We do our very best to be comprehensive and not pick or choose what goes in there. It would be wrong to run an item about one person and withhold a similar item about someone else -- even though I often get requests to do just that from people who don't want their name showing up in the paper over some arrest.
We print it as it is given to us by the official agencies responsible for those items.
And sometimes, that causes problems, in part because people are human and make mistakes, and in part because of the system that is used.
A few weeks ago we listed the name of an individual in the police log as having been arrested for a DUI. While that was true, the arrest had occurred several months before -- and been reported at that time. It made it look like he'd been arrested again, when in fact he hadn't.
What had happened was that he'd been ordered, as part of his sentencing, to spend two days in jail, and had checked himself in to do so (sometimes people are given some flexibility as to when they can serve their sentence, as long as they report to the jail within a certain time frame). But the person at the jail who prepares the "arrest" reports made a human error, saw this person had entered the jail based on a DUI charge, and listed it as an arrest.
In fact, only initial bookings are supposed to be listed on the arrest reports. As soon as the sheriff discovered this problem, he took immediate steps to correct it, so we should be getting only the initial bookings in the future.
I hope. I have no desire to embarrass people more than necessary.
But it is more difficult to avoid that problem in the court notes, which is a listing of all the activity in the courts. Now, it is only fair if we report someone has been arrested, to also report if the charges were dismissed, or the person was found not guilty, or the person was found guilty of (or pled to) a lesser charge, or was found guilty of the original charge.
Every week, we go to the public computer at the courthouse, the one anyone can use, and pull the latest reports issued by that computer. And then we "follow them out the window" and print exactly what that report says.
Which sometimes leads to some problems.
Take the case of Johnny Gould, for example. Back in 2005 and 2006 he got arrested for some relatively minor traffic offenses, was put on probation and ordered to pay some fines. That information was reported at that time. But he didn't pay all the fines and in May of this year got tagged for contempt of court as a result.
The problem is, when the latest incident got reported on the public computer, it kicked out all the previous charges as well, since they were part of the "chain" of court action involving this particular case.
Now, we include a disclaimer in our court notes section saying this can happen, and list the original incident date on actions reported, but not everybody understands or pays attention to that, so some people thought he'd been arrested again on a whole series of similar but new charges, when the only thing that had really happened was the contempt charge for failing to pay the fines on those cases. He wasn't happy about what people were thinking, erroneously, about what had happened, and I can understand that. He's got a valid point.
So why didn't we just report the contempt citation? Why repeat everything the court computer gave us? In fact, similar problems like that occur all the time.
Every time there is a change in status or some action involving a case, the whole "chain" of the case gets kicked out by the court's public computer. This can be as simple as a case that is several years old being dismissed because a person successfully completed a withheld judgement, or a charge reinstated because they didn't. Or they violated a probation agreement. There are all kinds of things that can happen because once you wind up in the court system a case can follow you around for years (please keep that in mind if you're planning on getting arrested for something).
Our problem is two-fold. We don't have the manpower or software to try and track every case to figure out exactly what is "new" and what isn't, and even if we could, putting someone physically in the two courts in Elmore County (magistrate and district, which take place often at the same time) to monitor what is "new" and what isn't doesn't really help because a large number of cases are settled "in chambers" between the judge and the lawyers so the action taken never shows up in open court.
And, simply looking at when the incident (the original arrest) occurred, doesn't really help, either, because sometimes it can be a very long time before a person comes to trial. I know of cases where a person waited, or managed to get a case delayed, for up to two years before they ever came to trial. So simply because some listing on the computer looks old, doesn't mean it isn't new. There simply isn't any way for us to reasonably tell the difference based on the public information available that shows up on the computer as "new" each week. And if we assumed something wasn't new, and missed reporting just one, I'd get flooded with calls alleging that we were "covering up" for someone. It wouldn't be true, but it would sure look like it.
We could ask the court clerks to go over every case that pops up each week, but it would take a very long time for both them and us while they pull the file on every case and figure out what is "new" and what isn't. And if they do it for us, they'd have to do it for anyone else who asked. We don't have any more rights to access than any other member of the public has. They're kind of busy as it is, and I just can't see them agreeing to do that just for us.
It would be nice if the software itself that the courts use could indicate what is a "new" action and what isn't in the "chain" of the case. Unfortunately, as most of us have learned in this modern age, if a computer's software is designed to do one thing, it's almost impossible to get it to do something else.
Still, I'm going to work on that issue and see what I can eventually accomplish. Don't count on it happening soon, though.
In the meantime, the only thing I can suggest is to note the caveat we print with the court notes. Look at the incident dates. That will tell you when the original incident happened, regardless of whether or not some "new" action, which may be quite minor, involving that case is being kicked out by the computer and ultimately reported by us.