Court records can be wrong — and in the case of Councilwoman Tina Houghton may well be. A check of her record on file at Lansing’s 54-A District Court says that when she was 25, she was given a driving citation in the death of a construction worker in April 1992. In June 1992, the record shows, she was cited for reckless driving.
But the court has no supporting evidence that the fatal incident ever occurred. Lansing Police have no record of such an incident involving Houghton. The Lansing City Attorney’s Office, which would have prosecuted such a case, has no record, and research into the archives of the Lansing State Journal found no story about the death of a construction worker.
There’s just a one-line entry in the official court record. It’s a case number, an offense date and the vague “death constr” in the charge description. Those entries are followed by the date the case was resolved, what the outcome was and the amount of the fine.
The Second Ward Councilwoman’s record shows she paid $135 for the “death constr” infraction and $55 for the reckless driving citation.
Houghton flatly denied both incidents. Officials said the record and the lack of supporting evidence are the result of a combination of sloppy offense descriptions and an information technology contractor unhappy with losing a lucrative deal with the city of Lansing in 2008. Topping that all off, court record keeping rules allow for supporting documents in traffic offenses to be purged from the system at regular intervals, leaving vague, often misleading offense descriptions in one-line summations in the court record and no way to verify the actual allegations.
Houghton’s case may be the tip of the iceberg of a major record-keeping problem, court officials concede. In fact, in a City Pulse review of court records, one of Houghton’s opponent in her run for reelection this year, Jeremy Garza, also turned up questionable charges on his history. His record alleges he was involved in “inj cons wkr,” short for injury of a construction worker, and “WC-Felony,” an unclear description that court officials were unable to explain. He would have been 17 at the time of those charges. He too flatly denies them.
Lansing Police and the Lansing City Attorney’s Office have no record of the cases against Garza either.
No one knows how many or how few people have significant errors in their 54-A District Court records. And court officials said there’s nothing the court or individuals can do to fix the misleading entries.
Court officials said that a former data system the court used had descriptions related to certain offense codes that were unclear about the actual charge.
“For instance, it could say death or injury of construction worker,” said Anethia Brewer, the 54-A District Court administrator. “But until you go look at the underlying actions, you don’t know if there was actually a death or an injury.”
That underlying action, called a register of actions by the court, is a detailed listing of all the actions taken by the court in a given case. It includes the specific charges, the judge who oversaw the case, court dates, outcomes, fines assessed and dates when the driver made payments on the traffic infraction if they were found responsible.
The register of actions, court officials said, were lost in 2008 when the court changed to a new content management system.
Brewer said the former provider “didn’t, let’s say, playing nice in the sandbox about us merging two different case management systems.”
She said the unwillingness to cooperate resulted in register of actions being lost on thousands and thousands of traffic cases and other files in the 54-A District Court.
Court rules allow the department to destroy paper files after three years. In the ‘90s, the paper files could be purged after six years. A 2006 state court order allows the destruction of register of actions at the same time case files are destroyed.
“The description is what I am saying is not reliable with the way the old case management system threw the descriptions down,” Brewer said. “It could be death slash injure construction worker under the same offense code.”
Defendant searches have been used by prospective employers or landlords as part of a background checks. Misleading entries could result in losing job or rental opportunities, among other things.
Brewer downplayed this, noting that most landlords and employers rely on existing systems that do criminal conviction backgrounds, rather than on records in the court.
Brewer insisted there is no way to correct those records or hide them from public view.
To correct the record, the court would have to have the underlying register of action, something missing in thousands of case files. To hide the record from public view or otherwise make notations would require action by the state of Michigan.
“We don’t have the ability to change that,” said Brewer. “We have to make it available.”
Rick Jones,R-Grand Ledge, who chairs the state Senate Judiciary Committee, called the court’s situation “idiotic” and said if court administrators contacted him to explain the problems and the fixes he would introduce legislation to fix it.
Jones said keeping an allegation like killing a construction worker on a court record without substantiating information was “ridiculous.”