TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OVER MAGISTRATE REPORT - What To Do, What To Do

(04/16/2002)

Bob Weaver

Publishing the magistrate report is a contentious event, week to week. People get upset about getting their name, or family members name, in the report which is issued by the Magistrate Court.

The Magistrate Court is required, under public information law, to release the information, in fact nearly all information. It is published in nearly every community in West Virginia.

David Hedges, Editor of the Roane County Reporter/Times Record, said in a recent column, the publishing of minors names is "perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the news business."

He said "There are some laws which limit what information courts or police can release about juveniles, but none that tell newspapers what they can or cannot print."

Alice Neff Lucan, a Washington lawyer who is consulted by members of the West Virginia Press Association says "If you have accurate, newsworthy information lawfully obtained, you can publish it, even the name of a minor child."

Editor Hedges said, regarding the publishing of names, the "old guys in powdered wigs took care of that a couple hundred years ago when they wrote the Constitution of the United States."

Most of the complaints to The Herald relate to the printing of a minors name as linked to what the court considers as citations and non-felony offenses, which could be speeding, underage drinking, traffic violations, etc.

Callers who are upset say it is against the law to print minors names, which it is not.

Courts are charged with whether to release the names of minors. In most cases the minors have been treated as adults, unless the case has been shifted to juvenile court. The court is sensitive to cases where juveniles are victims, as everyone should be.

The local Magistrate Court has followed the law and been helpful regarding public information.

There remains issues regarding "policy" about printing names. The Herald has maintained a policy of not printing bad checks, except when there are several bad checks, based upon consideration that people get in financial distress sometimes or just make a mistake.

We have tried not to print possession of tobacco charges initiated in the school system, essentially because of possible constitutional concerns. The school's have filed charges as the first-party, precluding an investigation by law enforcement.

We have accepted the policy of the Magistrate Court not to print the names of people until warrants are served, a request made by the West Virginia State Police, although weeks or months go by before some warrants are served, and sometimes the cases are dropped.

Sometimes we get complaints about names we have not printed. If names are not printed, it is because they are not on the report.

When minors are listed in the report, such as possession of a drug or underage drinking, we do not know their age, as they are not included. The "minor" could be a few days under age 21 (for drinking) or 15 years old.

Henry Woodyard, the old-time editor and publisher of the Times-Record in Spencer, use to respond by saying, "If ya don't want your name in the newspaper, don't make the news."

A Calhoun man called one night saying "I'm sick and tired of reading my name in your - - - - - paper for drunk driving." I asked how many times he had been arrested. He said "Three!" I asked, "Were you drunk?" He said "Just a little." I said "It is highly unlikely your name will be in The Hur Herald if you don't get drunk again and drive your car."

Mothers, thank God for them, have called The Herald (after reading their child's name) saying "You have ruined their life!" I usually respond by telling them I was cited in Parkersburg 45 years ago by the cops at age 16 and my name was in The Parkersburg News, and it probably helped me.

If the court system account is to be accurate and fair, we print it. If we edit, edit, edit, that seems unfair. We just can't have it both ways. It is unpleasant to upset so many people, who say they will dislike us for the rest of our days.


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