NJ might let you look up arrest warrants on public database

TRENTON — New Jersey could create a statewide database of warrants open to the public, though the idea has concerned criminal justice and immigration reform groups who fear it could be abused.

The idea behind Bill A634 is to reduce the likelihood of someone not even realizing they are subject to a warrant, which could apply to things like unpaid parking tickets, until arrested by a police officer.

But Yannick Wood, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s criminal justice reform program, said “there are so many privacy concerns,” even if it’s well intentioned.

“While it makes sense for people to be able to freely access their own warrant information, having that information visible to all could be a recipe for discrimination,” he said. “For example, if an employer or landlord accesses this information, even if that warrant was issued in error, someone could lose their job or their home.”

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The bill would be searchable and may return results with just a name and address.

“We just don’t want anyone having access to this incomplete information and being able to make people want to be vigilantes or try to act on this incomplete information,” Wood said.

Wood said it makes sense for people to be able to freely access their own warrant information — through a secure verification process that only the person subject to the warrant can use. He suggested that maybe someone should sign up for the system, or at least have the option to opt out.

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“We believe that sensitive information must be treated sensitively,” he said.

The bill is not new. Craig Coughlin, Speaker of the Assembly, D-Middlesex, first introduced it in February 2012 and has reintroduced it in every legislature since. It hadn’t received a committee vote in its first decade as of last week.

The assembly’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee unanimously approved the bill without debate or testimony, although three people – including Wood – expressed their opposition. Other opponents included the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice and Wind of the Spirit.

The bill was referred to the Assembly Budget Committee for further consideration before it could be put to a vote by the full Assembly.

It would also have to be dealt with in the Senate, where there is still no accompanying legislation.

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Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at [email protected]

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