PORTLAND — The state online repository of court files is a public record, the Oregon Court of Appeals has ruled, overturning a lower-court judgment that put the state in the awkward position of arguing that its own online registry was insufficiently reliable to establish that a conviction had taken place.
The ruling came in a Multnomah County misdemeanor case in which a circuit court judge refused to accept a defendant's use of the Oregon Judicial Information Network as a public record to attack the credibility of a government witness.
"We disagree with the state's argument that an OJIN register is not sufficiently reliable to 'establish' the existence of a conviction," Appeals Court Judge Timothy Sercombe wrote in the ruling released last week.
The case itself was simple: Two people in the same place at the same time were questioned in the same crime, in this case, breaking car windows. Each said the other person did it. Heather Marie Thomas was charged with criminal mischief. The other person was the government's chief witness.
Under questioning to establish his credibility, the witness acknowledged one previous conviction for robbery in "1998 or 1999." But Thomas' defense attorneys saw an opportunity to impeach him as a witness — to show he was lying by demonstrating he actually had two convictions.
So they turned to a printout from OJIN, the official online case register created using the best of early-1980s computing technology. It showed the two convictions. But then, the state argued that its own case register was insufficient and unreliable.
The trial court judge agreed. "I have seen enough errors in judgment print-outs like that," the trial judge said in his ruling.
The appeals court found that thinking problematic, especially in a trial that hinged on the credibility of the witness and the defendant.
"The case turned on the credibility of the two main witnesses," the appeals court ruled. "Both disclaimed responsibility and blamed the other. In the absence of physical evidence, the jury was left to make a credibility judgment as to which competing narrative to believe."
Under those circumstances, the judges wrote, witness credibility was paramount. They reversed Thomas' conviction and sent the case back down to Multnomah County Circuit Court.
The appeals court judges declined to rule on what other records could be considered "public record" to attack a witness's credibility.