The Arizona Senate approved legislation Monday that requires police and prosecutors to keep the addresses and other personal information of crime victims and witnesses secret from defense attorneys and the public without a court order.
The 17-11 approval of House Bill 2383 came with no Democratic support and no debate. Critics are concerned that it will shield information about witnesses and accusers from lawyers for those charged with crimes and have a chilling effect on the ability of journalists to do their jobs.
The House previously approved the bill on a bipartisan 45-15 vote, but a second vote is required because of a Senate amendment.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is pushing the bill as a way to protect victims. One key provision says photos of minor victims are presumptively not public.
A more sweeping provision keeps the address, phone numbers and other identifying information of victims and witnesses private. It would require police to get a victim’s or witness’ permission before releasing the information.
Rebecca Baker, Montgomery’s lobbyist, said the bill does not bar the release of photos under the state’s public records law but requires that someone requesting them establish that the public interest outweighs the privacy interest.
The legislation prevents defense lawyers and news reporters from easily contacting witnesses who may contradict police accounts, according to Dan Barr, a Phoenix attorney who specializes in public records law.
“And so the only version of a crime or an event is the version the police give you, or the version that the prosecutors give you if they’re controlling all the information,” Barr said. “That’s a bad idea for a host of reasons.”
He said journalists could uncover more information or details that could contradict the police report.
“In both cases, that’s a value to society,” Barr said.
Kathy Brody, past president of the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, sent an email to lawmakers Monday urging them to reject the legislation.
It “gives law enforcement and prosecutors an unfair advantage over the criminally accused by allowing those government agencies access to important information about criminal accusations while denying that information to the accused,” Brody wrote.
Keeping addresses and phone numbers secret will make it very difficult to find witnesses with common names, she said.
The legislation “will be a tool for use by the government to unfairly tip the playing field in its favor against the interests of the citizens of Arizona,” Brody said.