Domestic Violence Court Records and Privacy

I previously blogged about a proposal to place District of Columbia domestic violence and domestic relations (divorces, child neglect, child custody) court records online. These dockets contain case name, case type, scheduling, address where service occured, and even some dispositions.

I worked with the domestic violence community here in DC to create a set of comments(pdf) to the court. They touched on the topics I had previously mentioned: data brokers, identity theft, and stigma. Plus some more.

VAWA Prohibition

Importantly, a lot of this proposal is prohibited by federal law. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Prohibits the internet publication of protection order information. For more, I created a web page on VAWA and Privacy at EPIC. VAWA Section 106(c) prohibition language states:

Limits on Internet Publication of Protection Order Information.–Section 2265(d) of title 18, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following:
“(3) Limits on internet publication of registration information.–A State, Indian tribe, or territory shall not make available publicly on the Internet any information regarding the registration or filing of a protection order, restraining order, or injunction in either the issuing or enforcing State, tribal or territorial jurisdiction, if such publication would be likely to publicly reveal the identity or location of the party protected under such order. A State, Indian tribe, or territory may share court-generated and law enforcement-generated information contained in secure, governmental registries for protection order enforcement purposes.

I italicized some important language in there. The goal of this prohibition is to protect the privacy of the protected person. Lots of things besides the name and address of the protected person are likely to reveal their identity and location. The name of the restrained party can reveal the identity of the protected person. Here in DC, you can only get a protection order if you have an “intrafamily relationship.” This means that the universe of possible protected people for a given restrained party is small. These orders usually include stay away provisions which reveal the locations that the protected person frequents, not just their home address. DC itself is a small jurisdiction, so if you are from out of state and register your protection order here, then you will basically be providing notice that you moved to or have a connection to DC.

This prohibition reaches more than just than the domestic violence docket. As you can read in the comments, the definition of “protection order” may include criminal orders as well as orders in the domestic relations docket. So this rule impacts those dockets as well.

Other Records Affect Domestic Violence Survivors

The comments also directly discuss the threat of data brokers. We presented examples of data broker products, such as marketing lists of people who are “Single Again” or who have “recently filed divorces.” The source of this marketing information is family court records. Making it easier for data brokers to collect data makes it cheaper for them to spread it, which leads to more information flows.

We recommended that technical and legal measures guard against data broker access to online court records. Technically, CAPTCHA‘s should be implemented:

A CAPTCHA is a program that protects websites against bots by generating and grading tests that humans can pass but current computer programs cannot. For example, humans can read distorted text . . . but current computer programs can’t

Legally, the court should simply refuse to allow commercial resellers to access online court records.


We recommended a password protected database as a the best way to balance convenience, privacy and transparency. This way proper security — such as the data broker restrictions — could be implemented. We also recommended a basic set of Fair Information Practices, including that individuals have the ability to control whether their information is placed online. The details are at the comments.

Posted: November 1, 2007 in:

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

TrackBack URI

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.