ST. LOUIS • A deputy clerk in the St. Louis Circuit Court — dubbed “Judge Whitney” for her outsized role in courtroom matters — was accused in misdemeanor charges Thursday of improperly accessing confidential law enforcement records.
Whitney Tyler, 26, was named on 48 counts of misuse of official information. The charges say she was outside her duties when she repeatedly accessed arrest records, criminal histories and driving records for friends, family and others — including herself —from Sept. 7, 2011, to Feb. 22.
The charging documents say Tyler “knowingly or recklessly” obtained personal information on people who did not have pending matters in St. Louis Circuit Court, and that she did it for her own “personal or private use.”
Prosecutors say the allegations are unrelated to Tyler’s assignment to Associate Circuit Judge Barbara T. Peebles, who is on suspension and battling a state panel’s recommendation that she be removed from office.
One allegation against Peebles was that she went on vacation last year and abdicated authority to Tyler, the basis for the “Judge Whitney” nickname.
Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said Thursday in a prepared statement that Tyler’s charges are “not related to her work for Judge Peebles or any other matter involving Peebles or any judge.”
Officials have not indicated exactly how information obtained by Tyler might have been used.
“There is no lawful reason why Ms. Tyler should have accessed these individual records,” Joyce said. “Inappropriate disclosure of the information she obtained presents a potential security risk to those involved. We are not in a position at this time to discuss her possible motive for conducting these searches.”
Tyler denied to a police detective in an interview that she had been running criminal histories, the court documents say.
Her conduct was the subject of a Dec. 18 article in the Post-Dispatch, detailing how in October she essentially took on the role of judge during Peebles’ two-week vacation in China.
The newspaper’s investigation revealed that Tyler handled at least 350 cases in the judge’s absence. Tyler dismissed five, continued more than 300, decided that as many as 18 arrest warrants should be issued and told defense lawyers that there would be no bail reductions while Peebles was gone. That potentially meant weeks more time in jail for some defendants.
The coverage sparked a criminal investigation over the disappearance from the court file of a document that complained about one of the cases.
It also prompted the suspension of Peebles last week, after Missouri’s Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline recommended that she be booted. The panel took note of her turning over judicial responsibilities to clerks, tardiness and destroying a court document and then trying to cover it up.
It was not immediately clear if the timing of Thursday’s charges against Tyler was connected to the release of the commission’s report about Peebles. Tyler’s lawyer, Kristy Ridings, called it “curious.”
Ridings said her client has cooperated with federal and state investigators, sitting for multiple interviews and “providing truthful information” to them.
“I’m disappointed in ... the charging decision in this case ... and their lack of communication with my client and myself in spite of Whitney’s cooperation with their office over the past few months.” Ridings said. “It’s our opinion that she’s not committed a crime and we will vigorously defend each of these counts.”
Tyler was arrested Wednesday at work in the Civil Courts Building downtown and taken away in handcuffs. Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer initially set her bail at $48,000 and then reduced it to $10,000.
Circuit Clerk Jane Schweitzer said her office will review all clerks’ access to REJIS, a regional law enforcement database. “If they don’t need, it, we’re going to restrict it,” she promised.
Schweitzer said she does not believe that clerks’ misuse of the system is widespread.
“I hope not. I would think that the fact that our employees’ manual prohibits the disclosure of confidential information would alert them to the fact that this is not allowed.”
Schweitzer said restricting REJIS access would remove the “temptation to misuse it.”
In recent years, public employees have been repeatedly accused of giving in to that temptation. A drug court clerk was charged with a misdemeanor in April for allegedly checking the progress of her son’s case in REJIS. In June, she was given probation, banned from the courthouse and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service, court records show.
Prosecutors claim that Tyler ran her own name through law enforcement records five times, checking her criminal history and Department of Revenue records. She also allegedly checked the names of her father and a co-worker.
Also on the list are lawyer Monique Abby and Christopher Ollie, one of Abby’s friends. Tyler knew both, Abby said, noting, “She had no authorization to run my name and no reason to run my name.”
“I don’t understand what she was trying to find out,” said Abby, a former public defender. She speculated that Tyler was just being “nosy and fishing around.”