North Dakota bill would conceal officers' names after shootings, defendant contact info
Addresses and phone numbers of defendants would remain private till after a trial or appeal. The names of officers involved in a shooting would stay confidential until after an investigation.
BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers have proposed a bill that would keep private the addresses and phone numbers of criminal defendants before trials, as well as the names of police officers involved in shootings while authorities investigate what happened.
North Dakota Sen. Sean Cleary, R-Bismarck, introduced Senate Bill 2216 earlier this month. The proposed legislation would make a criminal defendant’s address and phone number a confidential record if it is in possession of a correctional facility or staff, until after a trial or appeal.
Cleary told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing Wednesday, Jan. 25, that he would like to expand the legislation to include all government agencies. He plans to offer up an amendment later this week.
"The real impetus behind the criminal defense portion of this was, there are defendants who just get bombarded with unwanted solicitation the minute there is a record," Cleary told The Forum in a phone interview.
The bill would also prevent the public release of an officer’s name if they are involved in a shooting or any incident resulting in a death or serious injury until after the investigation into the incident is completed. Cleary said he would craft an amendment so the bill referred to internal investigations, not criminal.
"The goal of this legislation is to avoid harassment and potential safety concerns at the very early portion of the potential incident," he said.
The bill would not prevent government agencies from sharing officer names or defendant contact information with other agencies for “official government business.”
The judiciary committee didn’t vote on the bill.
Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, a cosponsor of the bill, told The Forum she backed the legislation after hearing about troubling and threatening messages sent to officers and their families in response to officer-involved shootings and protests. She also said she received feedback from a constituent who received dozens of solicitations after a DUI arrest.
"I think it’s unnecessary to release the personal address information for both of these people who have not been convicted, sometimes not even charged, with a crime and subject them to this harassing behavior," she said.
The proposed bill comes after The Forum used jail phone records to connect former state Sen. Ray Holmberg to Nicholas Morgan-Derosier, a Grand Forks man accused of sharing child porn and attempting to sexually abuse two children. Holmberg’s phone number was listed as one Morgan-Derosier contacted in August 2021 while the defendant was in jail.
An open records request revealed Holmberg and Morgan-Derosier exchanged 72 text messages on Aug. 23 and 24, 2021. Holmberg told The Forum that the messages concerned various things, including patio work Morgan-Derosier did for him.
A federal prosecutor said during Morgan-Derosier’s detention hearing that he texted a “77-year-old man from Grand Forks” on Aug. 23, 2021, and the unnamed man asked or told Morgan-Derosier that “he wants him to bring (Morgan-Derosier’s boyfriend) over to his house to give him a massage,” according to a court transcript. The boyfriend was 19 or 20 years old at the time, according to the transcript.
Holmberg, a Grand Forks Republican who would have been 77 years old at the time of the text conversation, told The Forum he didn’t know anything about the massage request.
The Forum's initial story linking Holmberg and Morgan-Derosier was published April 15, 2022, and 10 days later Holmberg announced he would resign June 1, 2022. The longest-serving state senator in the country, Holmberg held powerful seats on the Senate Appropriations Committee and Legislative Management, a committee that manages the state Legislature’s work between sessions.
Cleary and Roers Jones said that case didn't play a role in drafting his bill.
"This is the first that I have heard of that potential concern," Cleary said. "Sen. Holmberg's case hadn't been mentioned at all in this discussion."
Attorney Mark Friese, who represents Holmberg and has represented police officers in the past, testified Wednesday in favor of the bill, saying short-term privacy protections for police officers and defendants are long overdue. This bill would reduce tactics by solicitors to harvest identifying information, he said.
Some people may use a defendant’s address to harass them, the attorney said.
“I have a current file right now where I have a binder full of letters that were sent, nasty letters that were sent to my client’s home address,” Friese said. “That address was obtained as a result of the governmental records.”
Privacy protection has become increasingly important in the digital age, said Jesse Walstad, who spoke on behalf of the North Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Some target marketers use the personal information for profit, he said.
Defendants are innocent until proven guilty and have a right to privacy, Walstad said. He also suggested the safety of police officers involved in shootings may be “unreasonably jeopardized” if personal information is made public prematurely.
Roers Jones said the investigation process for an officer-involved shooting provides a "proper accountability mechanism."
"Releasing an officer's contact information with incomplete information can lead the public to respond out of emotion when law enforcement or state’s attorneys are not able to share all of the details of the incident," she said.
No one spoke in opposition to the bill, but North Dakota Newspaper Association attorney Jack McDonald submitted written testimony that proposed allowing the hometown of a defendant to remain public.
Cleary said he's been working with the newspaper association to make sure the bill doesn't hinder journalists' ability to report on crime stories. He plans to offer an amendment that would follow McDonald's recommendations.