Lawmaker wants to help Utahns vet potential dates with cheaper online access to public court records

Under Rep. Steve Handy’s bill, Utahns could search online court system for a small fee.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Steve Handy, pictured in February 2019, introduced a bill in the 2021 session that would allow Utahns to access online court records for a minimal fee. This would help people vet dating app users before meeting in person, supporters say.

Editor’s note • Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, are urged to call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line, 1-888-421-1100.

When Lara Wilson met her now-ex-boyfriend on a dating app in 2016, she said, “he seemed like he was perfect.”

“Our first months together were wonderful,” the Layton resident said. “At that time, I had no reason to suspect that he had a history of violence.”

That later changed, she told state lawmakers Tuesday. He began shoving her, and she eventually learned about his previous domestic violence conviction. Shortly after that, Wilson said, he fractured both of her eye sockets, just before she became pregnant.

“I missed most of my prenatal appointments,” she said, “to avoid my doctor seeing my body covered in bruises.”

Wilson was testifying in support of HB249, proposed by Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, which would allow Utahns to pay a small fee to research potential partners by accessing Xchange, the state’s online public court system.

Currently, users have to pay for a more expensive monthly subscription to see the records online. The public also can go to courthouses to look up cases for free.

But Steven Burton, director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a practicing criminal defense attorney, told legislators on the House Judiciary Committee that the bill creates ”a lot of potential for abuse.”

Access would be far broader than domestic violence convictions, he said. Searchers can view criminal cases of all types; may see new charges and assume they mean someone is guilty; or look through civil cases underway, from debt collection cases to divorce proceedings, Burton said.

Inexpensive, widespread digital access could undermine decades of efforts “to allow somebody to be able to clean up their life ... and get their record expunged if they’ve gone long enough without any offenses,” Burton said.

Still, committee members voted unanimously Tuesday to send HB249 to the House floor with a favorable recommendation.

“These are public records. They’re intended to be public records. They’re public now. They’ll be public when this goes live. It’s just easier to access,” said Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland.

‘I would not have dated him’

By 2019, Wilson said, she had sought and received help from an area domestic violence shelter and other service providers, and she connected with other survivors.

“There needs to be a way for the public to protect themselves from this threat,” she said. “If I had known my ex-boyfriend’s violent history, I would not have dated him, and I would not have suffered the abuse that I did” and “have to rebuild my life.”

Wilson reached out to Handy with the idea to create a domestic violence registry, similar one for sex offenders already in place in Utah. That “would allow for potential victims to research their future partners,” she said.

Handy started looking into the concept and realized a new registry would be a “pretty big lift,” he said. After consulting with domestic violence experts and the court system, he proposed HB249, which supporters say would accomplish the same goal.

The bill doesn’t specify how much the fee to access Xchange, for a limited number of searches, should be; that would be determined by the Utah Judicial Council. Handy said it should be “minimal,” though, such as around $5.

The fee isn’t meant to create a profit for the courts, according to Michael Drechsel, assistant state court administrator. Rather, it would cover the maintenance costs of more people accessing the system and customer service help for one-time users, such as when people have trouble signing up or their transactions don’t go through, he said.

‘Dating apps as hunting grounds’

Handy’s bill would help reduce assaults and rapes that stem from people meeting on dating apps, according to Julie Valentine, associate dean of undergraduate studies and research at Brigham Young University’s College of Nursing and a member of Wasatch Forensic Nurses.

People typically used to meet through mutual friends or places like work, which provided a type of vetting system, Valentine said. But with dating apps, there is “minimal to no screening for repeat violent offenders,” she said.

Valentine has a database of roughly 8,000 rape cases from across the state, she said. Her research team wanted to figure out if there were differences between what they call “dating app-facilitated rapes” and assaults by people who did not meet their victim through an app.

“Our findings say absolutely there are, and it’s incredibly concerning,” Valentine said.

Her team identified 202 cases between 2017 and 2019 where a rape happened the first time people met after talking on a dating app. In these cases, victims were more likely to be strangled, have more severe injuries, be around the age of college students and self-disclose a mental illness. Victims were also more like to be male in dating app-facilitated rapes than in Valentine’s broader database.

“We believe that our findings show that violent perpetrators use these dating apps as hunting grounds, and they search for vulnerable victims,” Valentine said.

Handy said his bill offers “a small and simple solution to a scourge in our society,” as Utah has seen an increase in need in domestic violence services during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have to do something,” he said.

However, court records are not a comprehensive gauge of whether someone has a history of violence. Research has shown that sexual assault and domestic violence are underreported, and of reports made, not all are prosecuted.

Potential unintended consequences

With the bill’s solution, Burton said, “There might be quite a few unintended consequences,” which cause him “quite a bit of concern. ... There’s a lot of potential for abuse.”

The bill doesn’t limit public access to cases where there’s been a conviction, Burton said. Searchers will see if a person has an ongoing case and may assume they’re guilty, before that person is afforded their due process rights and while they are presumed innocent, he said.

The average person also doesn’t understand the different ways that cases can be resolved, he said. For instance, a person who made a mistake in a first-time offense may take a “plea in abeyance,” where they can get their case dismissed if they take a class or do community service. The general public might see a disorderly conduct or public intoxication charge and won’t understand that that person was not convicted of that offense, he said.

The bill also isn’t limited to criminal cases, and people could see other filings, such as for hospital liens, debt collections and divorce proceedings, Burton said.

“If a group of friends gets together and they don’t like somebody else ... they can go and look up all of their court cases and court proceedings, whether or not that person was a plaintiff or a defendant. They can basically get in their business,” he said.

Burton said that, “In the digital age, once something goes on the internet and into public domain, it doesn’t come back.”

He also questioned whether the proposed new access should be limited to violent offenses. In 2020 alone, there were tens of thousands of criminal, small claims and traffic cases in Utah.

“Not only would that many people be affected by having their business out in the world, but times that by the last 25 years. ... You’re literally putting millions of records online for people to use how they will,” Burton said.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he takes Burton’s “good, valid concerns” seriously.

“We need to do a better job as human beings of recognizing that people make mistakes, sometimes really serious mistakes, and recognize the capacity that we have ... of moving beyond mistakes that we make in our lives,” King said.

He added, “Let’s be supportive of each other and let’s be forgiving and tolerant.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.