402 U.S. 1000 (1971)

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U.S. Supreme Court

TARVER v. SMITH , 402 U.S. 1000 (1971)

402 U.S. 1000

Catherine TARVER
Sidney SMITH, Secretary, etc.
No. 6106.

Supreme Court of the United States

May 24, 1971

On petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Washington.

The petition for writ of certiorari is denied.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, dissenting.

The ability of the government and private agencies to gather, retain, and catalogue information on anyone for their unfettered use raises problems concerning the privacy and dignity of individuals. [Footnote 1] Public and private agencies are storing more and more data. 'If your name is not in the records of at least one credit bureau, it doesn't mean that you don't rate. What it does mean is that you are either under twenty-one or dead.'2

A file may show that an individual was arrested. But will it show the arrest was unconstitutional because it was solely for purposes of investigation? Or that the charges were dropped? Or that a jury acquitted him?

Other 'facts' may be in a file. Did he vote for Henry Wallace? Was he cited by HUAC? Is he subversive? Did he ever belong to any subversive organizations?

Private files amass similar irrelevancies and subjective information. Is he well regarded in his neighborhood as to character and habits? Does he have domestic difficulties? Is he 'slow' in paying his bills?

Page 402 U.S. 1000 , 1001

The problems of a computerized society3 with large data banks are immense. Who should have access to the files on an individual? For what purposes should access be allowed? Should an individual be informed each time information is passed on to new parties? How long should information be retained? What mechanisms ought there be for correcting factual errors?

This case presents the latter issue. A caseworker has prepared a highly critical report on petitioner setting forth in detail factual allegations and accusing petitioner of child neglect. The report recommends petitioner be permanently deprived of the custody of her children. Custody was temporarily placed in juvenile court because petitioner was hospitalized. Subsequently a hearing in juvenile court was held and petitioner was exonerated and retained custody of her children. But the critical report-which petitioner alleges is false-remains in the files with the Department of Social and Health Services of the State of Washington.

Not surprisingly, petitioner would like the allegedly false information removed from those files. But her efforts to obtain a hearing to correct the information have failed.

The State says that petitioner's file is 'confidential and privileged' and under current state law the file may only be disclosed 'for purposes directly connected with the administration of public assistance and specific investigatory purposes by legislative committees and properly authorized bodies.' Just how many people and agencies this includes is unclear. The only thing perfectly clear from this record is that [402 U.S. 1000 , 1002]

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