Do you know about CCAP? If you're in this business of rental housing (as a tenant or landlord), I bet you do. It's this magical land on the interwebs where you can find court records (the public parts) for people who have records in Wisconsin. (Click here for your digital portal into wonderland).
There's a lot that people don't understand about CCAP, though. CCAP has limitations, and it's important to be aware of them in order to use it most effectively, both in order to protect yourself, and in order to understand the people whom you may be screening.
Here's a pretty typical scenario we see here at the TRC: a tenant comes in to talk to a housing counselor here. This tenant has been living in a rental for a while, and is a normal tenant (not excessively good or bad). Tenant is trying to move, and suddenly he's being denied housing due to an unknown eviction hearing that's on his record from last year. He comes into our office, wondering what he can do.
(How could this happen, you say? I know, I love the stories, too. Let's say, for argument's sake, this is a situation where the tenant lived with a roommate, his name was on the lease, but he moved out and somebody else moved in, and things went sour from there. So, the tenant weren't a part of the fallout, and was accidentally named on the hearing because he was initially on the lease, even though he really didn't have anything to do with the problems that came up.)
So what can he do? Probably not a whole heck of a lot. But we can all do more to understand what CCAP does and doesn't do well. Possible steps for folks like our unlucky tenant are also below.
CCAP is kind of magical because it feels kind of like an unlimited well of information. Everything you could ever possibly want to know about someone else, right? Well, not exactly. The way we see it, there are 2 main limitations:
1. Records stay online for a while. Eviction and other small claims records stay on for 20 years, and criminal stuff stays there for 100 years. Sometimes just the initial hearings will stay on record, but if you don't know how to find out about the outcomes of the hearings, or how to understand them, it can lead to a false sense of who this person is. Here, Wisconsin courts explain the times for the availability of these records on CCAP.
When dealing with eviction and small claims records, to get the best information out of CCAP, it's important to click on the button (inside the record) that says, "Court Record Events." It looks like this:
For evictions, once you click on "Court Record Events," the entry with the most recent date should tell you what has most recently happened. But what does it mean?*
- If an eviction case is dismissed, then that means that the judge went with the tenant's perspective.
- If there is a stipulated dismissal, it means that the tenant and landlord came to an agreement where the tenant had to do certain things, and then the tenant wouldn't be evicted. If you don't see anything beyond that stipulated dismissal, then it means that the tenant successfully did what they said they'd do.
- If there is a judgment of eviction, or a writ of restitution, it means that the judge sided with the landlord.
Weird fact: when you look at CCAP's description of how long things are allowed to stay online, they say that if a small claims suit (an eviction is a category within small claims suits) is dismissed, then it can only stay online for a max of 2 years (actual wording here under Sect. 9). (Please note: “Dismissed” means that there was an outright dismissal – the judge decided that the landlord didn’t have grounds to file an eviction. “Stipulated dismissal” is a very different thing – it means that the judge never decided if the landlord was right to file because everyone worked it out.) Now, the 2 year rule is confusing, because we don't see it practiced. But if you see an eviction case on CCAP that's been dismissed, and is more than 2 years old, you can file a form saying they have an error online, and see what happens. That error form is here.
2. You don't know what you don't know. Some counties in Wisconsin didn't put records online until well after the start of CCAP (what's up Portage County?), some cases for folks under 25 years of age are sealed. The name could be weirdly common, the person could have lived out of state for a long time (so their criminal records would show up on a nationwide background check, but not Wisconsin's; their credit history would show debts to landlords, but CCAP wouldn't). Folks with the means to pay for really good lawyers will have less of a record, probably, than someone who can't pay for any legal counsel at all. African Americans and Latinos are imprisoned at much higher rates than Caucasians, especially in Wisconsin (more info here and here). Take it all with a grain of salt.
For the tenants who are struggling with an eviction record on CCAP, there's not a lot that you can do. In our example, the eviction was probably legal - the original tenant was probably joint and severally liable, and the problems that occurred after he left really happened. If, however, the eviction were somehow not legal, or didn't follow the law, it might be possible to do something about it (info on evictions is here). Possible solutions include:
- If the case hasn't gone to court yet, then you can go to the court hearing and fight the eviction. If you are successful in fighting the eviction, then in that same hearing, you can ask the judge or court commissioner to make it part of the court record that this case is sealed or expunged from CCAP. Some reasons might be: the case was filed in error, the case was filed based on illegal actions by the landlord. You'll be more successful if the landlord agrees with the removal from CCAP.
- If the case went to court within the last year, then you can petition to have the case reopened (here's the form). Once you're in court, you can try to fight the case. If you're successful fighting the case, then in that same hearing, you can ask the judge or court commissioner to make it part of the court record that this case is sealed or expunged from CCAP. Some reasons might be: the case was filed in error, the case was filed based on illegal actions by the landlord. You'll be more successful if the landlord agrees with the removal from CCAP.
* Hi! Did you know that we aren't attorneys? This isn't legal advice, either. If you want legal advice, contact an attorney. If what we wrote doesn't seem right to you, double check with someone you trust. And if we made a mistake, let us know.
Edit on 7/21/14: In the paragraph beginning with “Weird Fact,” the following sentence was added: (Please note: “Dismissed” means that there was an outright dismissal – the judge decided that the landlord didn’t have grounds to file an eviction. “Stipulated dismissal” is a very different thing – it means that the judge never decided if the landlord was right to file because everyone worked it out.)