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To Massachusetts police, Sean Bucci was just a two-bit pot dealer busted in 2003 after a childhood buddy exposed his illegal business. But now he’s become the centerpiece of a Justice Department effort to pull criminal case information off the Internet. The controversy stems from a Web site Bucci founded in 2004, shortly after he was charged with selling marijuana. The goal: to publish the names of informants like his childhood acquaintance. Culled from electronically accessible court documents, Bucci’s site, whosarat.com, tracks and publicizes the names of police informants. The Web site has raised alarm among law enforcement officials, who say it jeopardizes the safety of government witnesses. Now the Justice Department is pushing back, urging judges to limit electronic access to court filings, particularly those dealing with cooperators. Already, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, a center for drug prosecutions, has pulled all plea agreements, which often detail cooperation arrangements, off the national electronic database of court documents known as PACER. Two committees with the Judicial Conference, which sets policy for the federal judiciary, are reviewing the government’s proposal and are expected to make a decision in June on what documents should remain on PACER. The Justice Department effort has given a cutting-edge sheen to a familiar question: how to balance protecting informants with the right of the public to view court records. “The Web site is just one manifestation of a larger problem,” says Utah-based U.S. District Judge Paul Cassel, who sits on one of the Judicial Conference committees reviewing the policy. “The larger problem is that in the era of computerized information and Internet connectivity . . . the need to be careful about what information appears on our docket is heightened.” STOP SNITCHIN’ The questions come at a time when the Judicial Conference has pledged increased transparency in court dockets. In March, Chief Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who also chairs the executive committee of the Judicial Conference, pledged to end the practice of secret dockets, whereby some cases under seal “vanish” from electronic dockets and databases. The debate over plea agreements began last November, when leaders of the conference sent a memo to federal courts urging them to seal documents to protect cooperators. In some sense the letter did little more than emphasize existing law, which allows courts to seal plea agreements, and even entire cases, for the benefit of cooperating witnesses. But the Justice Department wanted more. In a Dec. 6 letter sent to James Duff, secretary of the Judicial Conference, then-head of the Executive Office for the U.S. Attorneys Michael Battle urged the courts to remove all plea agreements and related docket entries from electronic access. (In the District, that would mean removing plea agreements in more than 300 cases in the past year.) “The very fact that PACER’s electronic docket reflects the filing of a cooperator’s plea agreement � even if sealed � threatens to compromise the physical security of cooperating defendants,” Battle wrote in the letter. The letter singled out Bucci’s Web site, but it did not cite any cases where informants had been harmed because of their exposure. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on whether there had been any adverse consequences as a result of the Web site. Most courts seal plea agreements for cooperators at the prosecutors’ request. But often prosecutors find that making cooperation agreements public works to their advantage because it increases pressure on targets � as has been the case in the investigation into the dealings of now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In the Southern District of Florida, Chief Judge William Zloch took the Justice Department’s warnings to heart. Zloch decided to pull all plea agreements off the electronic database, but he let the paper versions remain publicly available at the clerk’s office. He says a formal committee is looking at whether to make that arrangement permanent. “We didn’t want to pull them all off and seal them, and yet we wanted to somehow help the lawyers who were requesting it and said, �If you want to look at them, you have to go down to the courthouse,’ ” he says. It’s unclear whether other districts have followed suit. The Judicial Conference keeps no records on the practices of specific districts. Lawyers practicing in the District of Columbia and the Eastern District of Virginia say the courts have taken no additional action in lieu of the Justice Department’s letter. (D.C. does seal entire cases for some cooperators.) In the Western District of Texas, however, plea agreements are not on the electronic docket, which only went live about a year ago, says Michael Oakes, deputy clerk for the district. But, says Minnesota-based U.S. District Judge John Tunheim, who sits on one of the Judicial Conference committees looking into the removal of plea agreements, “there is a concern about the blanket sealing of cases.” One possibility the courts are considering is taking cooperating agreements out of plea documents and sealing those agreements separately, say Tunheim and Cassel. As it is, sealing plea agreements for defendants creates its own hazards: a docket entry of a sealed plea is a red flag that the individual is a cooperator. �RAT’ RETRIBUTION? In the meantime, Bucci, 34, is scheduled to be sentenced on May 24. He faces life in prison for his conviction on 16 counts. Bucci’s lawyer, Stellio Sinnis of the Federal Public Defender’s Office, declined comment. In a motion filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Bucci urged the court to order a new trial. He claims that the government’s superseding indictment, which added new charges of conspiracy, money laundering, and tax evasion, was filed after he started the Web site and was done in retribution. (That second indictment also charged Bucci’s mother with money laundering, but she was acquitted at trial.) The filing pointed to a quote from a law enforcement spokesman in the Boston Herald after Bucci’s February conviction. Notably, Sinnis wrote, the official “did not mention that a marijuana conspirator had been convicted, or a money launderer had been taken off the streets, or a tax evader had been apprehended, but rather, he stated his delight in the fact that the person who started whosarat.com had been brought to �justice.’ “ Despite Bucci’s imprisonment, the Web site continues. A longtime friend, Chris Brown, has taken over daily operations for the site, which lists more than 4,200 informants and 400 undercover agents. Brown says the Justice Department’s proposals would do little to stop the site because most of the dockets are posted by people who are involved in the cases. “And if you’re involved in the case,” he says, “you’ve got the documentation.”
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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