Securing Identifying Information of Protected Parties on Court Websites

Mitchell LaCombe
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The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) forbids courts to publish information pertaining to a personal protection order (PPO) online if that information will likely reveal the identity or location of the party protected by the PPO. The provision was enacted as an additional safety measure for victims of intimate partner violence and was intended to prevent abusers and others from gaining identifying information, including addresses, by scrolling online court records

VAWA was enacted in 1994 in response to public concern about domestic violence. The restriction on access to PPOs online, however, was not added to VAWA until 2006, when it was enacted as part of the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005.

Under the restriction, courts may still publish PPOs online so long as they remove or omit any information that will likely reveal the identity or location of the party protected by the PPO. Of course, in practice, many courts maintain policies of not publishing PPOs online. Neither Washtenaw County nor Oakland County, for example, permits access to PPOs online, although courts with such policies must allow courthouse access to records under Michigan Court Rule 8.119(I)(6).

Although the restriction’s language is broad and forbids the online publication of “any information” concerning a PPO that would likely “reveal the identity or location of the party protected,” in practice, it is only applied to a very limited set of records. In addition to PPOs, the restriction is applied to opinions of cases dealing with the issuance or violation of a PPO. However, the restriction is not applied to opinions of cases not dealing with either of those topics. So, in T.M. v. M.Z.(2018), an appeal from the entry of a PPO (and the sole Michigan case in Westlaw’s database citing the provision in VAWA setting forth the restriction), the Michigan Supreme Court referred to the parties by their initials in order to comply with restriction, but in Franzel v. Franzel (2019), an appeal from a child custody ruling, the Michigan Court of Appeals -- taking no such precautions -- discussed how one party secured a PPO against the other in the portion of its opinion detailing the background of the case.

At least one court has held that the restriction only protects information pertaining to parties whose petitions for the issuance of a PPO were actually granted. This is suggested by the plain language of the statute, which makes explicit reference to parties protected under PPOs.

In records to which the restriction is applied, courts limits their description of events and locations to the extent necessary to avoid revealing the identity or location of the protected party. Some courts, such as the Michigan Supreme Court (see above), have referred to both parties by their initials to avoid revealing the identity of the protected party. Others, such as the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and the Massachusetts Appeals Court, have referred to the protected party as “Jane Doe” or with a pseudonym but to the non-protected party with his actual name, notwithstanding that by revealing the non-protected party’s name, the protected party’s identity may be discovered.