By Chris Hacker, Samah Assad, Brad Edwards
CHICAGO (CBS) — With a pair of new laws that strengthen privacy protections for sex crime survivors set to take effect in January, Cook County court officials face a daunting task: removing personal information from tens of thousands of files.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Frostbite Risk Within 30 Minutes Of Exposure As Wind Chills Drop Below Zero
The two pieces of legislation, spurred by a CBS 2 investigation, are the first of their kind in the country. They require sensitive details like names, phone numbers and home addresses be removed from publicly-available court documents from sexual offense cases. But ensuring that private information is removed from the records requires hours of painstaking review of every page of case files that are often hundreds of pages long.
The staff of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez has already scrubbed more than 6,700 cases involving sexual assault and abuse of children — the subject of CBS 2’s original investigation in October 2020 — and officials tell CBS 2 any new cases will be protected going forward. They’ve also taken steps to ensure those documents can’t be printed out — something CBS 2 documented happening multiple times over the course of its investigation. Staff will now screen document requests and, if the documents are related to a sex offense case, the requestor will have to file a motion asking a judge for access to the case file.
Now Martinez’s team is beginning work on an even more formidable task: doing the same thing for more than 70,000 cases involving adult victims.
Martinez, a former Illinois state senator who worked to help pass the laws after CBS 2 exposed the problem, said the undertaking is the most significant achievement of her tenure as Clerk so far.
“These victims have been victims, they’ve been traumatized by this, and it’s important that we protect that identity,” Martinez said, adding that doing so became her “number one priority” after she took office and learned of the issue.
In late 2020, Martinez took over the role of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk, charged with overseeing decades of files for one of the largest court systems in the country. That was just a few months after CBS 2 first realized, while searching case files at the Daley Center for a different story, the private information was freely available to anyone who looked up records from a sex crime case. Clerk’s staff also gave CBS 2 producers copies of the records with the sensitive information on multiple occasions. That’s despite a 1986 law already on the books that said access to children’s files should be restricted. But that law was vague, and, in Cook County, ignored for years.
Martinez’s predecessor, Dorothy Brown, denied any responsibility, and only began concealing the documents when State’s Attorney Kim Foxx threatened to sue her. Martinez acknowledged it shouldn’t have been this difficult to get a solution.
“It doesn’t need to be this hard,” she said. “It’s part laziness, or not wanting to take that extra step and really going on and finding a solution to the problem.”
Before she left office, Brown’s staff told CBS 2 they’d fixed the problem. But when CBS 2 checked again in early 2021, it became clear the problem was exponentially worse. More cases — nearly every one CBS 2 reviewed — contained that sensitive information, and there were thousands more falling under the 1986 law that Brown’s staff missed, Martinez’s office said.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Tips Lower Your Gas Bills As Temperatures Drop
Martinez launched her own inquiry, eventually tallying more than 6,700 cases involving children that required review. Drawing on her previous connections as a state senator, she teamed up with State Senator Kimberly Lightford and State Representatives Kelly Cassidy and Kelly Burke, who passed an amendment to that 1986 statute. It cleared up ambiguity in the old law, making it clear that it’s the Clerk’s responsibility to protect the records. The group of legislators went a step further, extending those same protections to adult victims as well with a second new law.
Those laws, signed by Governor J.B. Pritzker in August, take effect in less than a month at the start of the new year. And they don’t just affect Cook County — all 102 circuit court clerks in the state now have to comply.
CBS 2 called the clerks from some of the largest counties in the state to see if they had a plan. Some said they were already in compliance, either because they always remove sensitive information from court files before releasing them to the public, or because they don’t put that information in the files in the first place.
Martinez said she’s confident the clerks will comply, adding that they need to take a detailed look at their records to ensure such private information isn’t present.
“They have to take that seriously enough to look to see what is in their backyard,” Martinez said. “They have to, for the protection of that victim.”
Internally, Martinez also created new processes to prevent staff from providing copies of the records to members of the public without review.
If a member of the public requests documents from a case file, staff are now required to check the electronic case management system to see if the documents are restricted, and a supervisor will check whether criminal sexual offense charges are involved.
If so, the clerk’s office said the records will not be released, and the requestor will need to petition the court to request access to the case file. The laws allow only authorized individuals, such as members of the court and police officers, to view the information without requesting permission from a judge.
Martinez said she believes there’s no reason anyone outside that group should have the right to the information. She added the internal changes, and the new laws, will prevent the information from getting into the wrong hands to protect the identities of sexual assault victims.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to them to tell their story,” Martinez said. “I don’t think it’s up to us here to put that information out there.”MORE NEWS: CTA Blue Line Service Resumes After Man Killed By O'Hare Bound Train