As many of you know, I have owned and operated Inter-State Investigative Services in Tucson for over 20 years. During that time, I have become intimately familiar with law enforcement standards for the disclosure of public records not just in Southern Arizona but throughout the country. In my experience, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department’s failure to conduct name-based searches of its database falls well short of prevailing norms for public disclosure. Indeed, the Sheriff’s Department’s policy runs directly counter to well-established principles of open and transparent government.
I will illustrate the Sheriff’s Department’s shortcomings by way of comparison. The Tucson Police Department, like most law enforcement agencies across the nation, allows records searches to be performed through entry in the database of an individual’s name and date of birth. These name-based searches permit the identification of relevant police reports that otherwise would not have been discovered. I have personally witnessed innumerable instances in which locating records through name-based searches has meant the difference between a person being exonerated of a serious crime as opposed to serving a lengthy and unjust prison sentence. That the Pima County Sheriff’s Department fails to conduct such name-based searches constitutes a grievous impediment to justice being served.
I cannot stress enough the importance of identifying incident reports using an individual’s name to conduct the search. It is essential to mounting an effective defense against criminal allegations, which our constitution guarantees. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department offers address-based searches – which allow reports associated with a particular address to be identified – yet has failed to articulate why it cannot provide name-based searches as well. It is easy to see why address-based searches alone are insufficient: an individual could be a career criminal yet an address-based search would not reveal this fact so long as the individual was shrewd enough to commit his crimes in some location other than his own home.
Although the stakes are obviously highest in connection with a criminal prosecution, the importance of name-based searches is in no way limited to that context. When it comes to identifying and locating salient facts and key witnesses, the ability to search by name is critical in any litigation, whether it be criminal or civil in nature.
Moreover, name-based searches are essential to providing thorough, complete and accurate background checks to prospective employers in our community. Detailed federal and state legislation set forth the allowable standards for the reporting of criminal history in connection with pre-employment background checks, yet the Sheriff’s Department’s policies have the practical, if not the expressly intended, effect of thwarting those statutory schemes. It simply should not be that employers in Pima County are not entitled to take the same precautions that their competitors are allowed to take elsewhere in this state and in this nation. And that is to say nothing of the customers, patients, clients, residents, and guests of those employers who are ultimately victimized by employee theft or violence, crimes that could have been prevented but for the Sheriff’s Department’s arcane policies and procedures.
Please join me in urging the Pima County Sheriff’s Department to take immediate steps to implement name-based searches of its records database. Access to public records is one of the central tenets in this country’s system of criminal justice. Without open access to records, the deck is stacked against a private individual charged with a crime. To deny access to public records is to unfairly tip the scales of justice toward the already substantial power of the government – which has unfettered access to records – and away from the presumption of innocence that is foundational to our justice system.
Randy Downer Jr.
Editor’s Note: Subsequent to the posting of the above article, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department announced changes to the manner in which the Sheriff’s Department would conduct database searches going forward. Specifically and on request, the Sheriff’s Department will now conduct searches of its database by entering the names of individuals. Inter-State Investigative Services congratulates the Sheriff’s Department for taking this significant step forward to promote the safety and security of our community.