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Colorado Leads U.S. in Suppression of Court Cases

by Kevin Bliss

The Denver Post reported that it had found a cache of suppressed court cases in Colorado. More than 6,700 cases, mostly criminal (including some involving violent felonies), had been restricted from public access since 2013.

Many courthouse employees and law enforcement officials would not even acknowledge that the suppressed cases exist.

The Post began investigating suppressed cases nearly a year ago when its reporters were denied access to records in a specific case. The newspaper expressed concern about the practice and began obtaining data detailing the extent and reasoning for the suppressions.

It reported that nearly 3,100 cases in Colorado are still being suppressed of the 6,700 reported since 2013. The 18th Judicial District, composed of Arapahoe, Douglas, Lincoln, and Elbert counties, has the most total suppressions of the 22 districts at 177, with 62 cases already resolved via conviction and sentencing of the defendants.

Reasons claimed for suppressions vary, from protection of victims, a desire for secrecy for later arrests, and ongoing criminal investigations, to the more nefarious prosecutorial request for an Academy board member charged with sexual assault of a child, a judge’s concerns over a school board member attempting to lure a child for sex, and a sheriff’s deputy accused of trying to establish a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy.

The Post stated that it found that most suppressed cases had little or no media attention. In fact, until The Post began inquiring about the cases, no trace existed in the public-access computers. Suppressed cases only showed that a time was allotted for hearing on the docket without listing who or why and that even high-profile crimes that are still being suppressed prohibit access to court records, including that of the Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, witness killers Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, and Jessica Ridgeway’s killer Austin Sigg.

The Post reported that these cases do not involve sealed records, which differ from suppressed cases. Sealed records are limited by state law to cases where the defendant is exonerated or under certain conditions the case is dismissed. By contrast, a judge can suppress a case for any reason at his or her discretion. Once suppressed, it remains so until the judge reopens it.

Denver’s Sturm College constitutional law professor Alan Chen said it sounds to him like the Star Chamber, a 15th century English court infamous for arbitrary rulings and secret proceedings. The Post reported that since its investigation, the 18th District has unsuppressed many cases, changed computer programs to provide the public required information about cases, and begun instituting policies limiting how the practice is used in the future. 



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