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Florida court records are going on computers — but not online

Florida's court system is breaking into the digital age. Instead of musty paper files that sit on forgotten shelves in courthouses, county clerks across the state have entered tens of thousands of criminal, civil, traffic and other public records onto computers.

Just don't expect to access them from your computer.

Because while Florida law says that most government records are open to the public, the state Supreme Court issued a moratorium in 2003 that prevents most court records from being posted online.

This conflict is causing consternation across the state as clerks increasingly digitize their records but are barred from giving the public online access.

"My feeling is a public record is a public record," said Pinellas County Clerk Ken Burke.

It's fine to debate which records should be public, Burke said, but "once it's public record, we should make it available to people."

Consider the situation with probate records in Pinellas. The county has gone to a paperless system, meaning all probate files are electronic. You can go to courthouses in St. Petersburg or Clearwater to read such files on computers in the clerk's offices. But you can't read them on a home computer.

Also, Burke said he started posting traffic citations online a few years ago until the state told him to stop. A 2007 Supreme Court administrative order specifically "disallows the electronic release of images of traffic citations, which can contain personal identifying information."

Still, the citations can be viewed at clerks' offices.

Pasco County has gone paperless in cases involving probate, small claims and some county civil lawsuits. These records can be printed, or even e-mailed to people who request and pay for them, but not posted online.

In Hillsborough County, Chief Deputy Clerk Doug Bakke said felony criminal files, traffic cases and family law cases are being handled electronically. In Hernando County, incoming Clerk Don Barbee said all court records are being imaged, except for some that are being done on request.

In some ways, the issue seems like a no-brainer. Most court cases already are a matter of public record. Floridians are legally entitled to walk into county courthouses and ask to see files on murder cases, divorce cases, sex abuse cases, lawsuits, traffic citations and others.

If someone filed a lawsuit against your employer, you can go to the courthouse and read the file.

If you were worried about a sex offender in your ZIP code, you can go to the courthouse and pore over details of his crimes.

If your neighbor's driving is bothersome, you could go see how many traffic tickets she's received.

But if the Supreme Court allowed these records to be posted online, you could find this information from the comfort of your home.

There are some exceptions — juvenile court files generally are not public, and slivers of confidential information are withheld from other files, such as the names of sex crime victims or Social Security numbers.

So what's the argument against offering unfettered access to public records?

"There is an unbelievable amount of very, very sensitive information that is contained in court records," said Tim McLendon, an attorney at the University of Florida's Center for Governmental Responsibility.

"I think that there's no doubt that an uncontrolled access, that would be a problem," said McLendon, who has served on one of the Supreme Court's committees studying electronic records, and provided staff support for another.

Of course, plenty of this sensitive information already is open to the public. But putting it online creates new issues, McLendon said.

For example, he cited the possibility of "data mining" — people or computers scanning these online records for personal information, which could then be sold to online marketing companies or others. Or the information could be used for identity theft.

Many court records also contain false information, sometimes about people who aren't even the ones involved in the lawsuit or criminal case, McLendon said.

But since that information already is contained in public court files, what's the difference in posting it online?

"I guess the difference," McLendon said, "is the difference between whispering it in the closet and trumpeting it on the housetops."

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has endorsed a pilot program in Manatee County that could point to a future with much greater online access. Civil and criminal court cases there are routinely posted online, with the court's blessing. In some cases, just because of the workload, files are not automatically imaged and stored, but they will be as soon as someone asks for them, said Clerk R.B. Chips Shore.

"You can see any record you want as long as it's not prohibited by law," he said.

"We have people that got upset because some of their criminal records might be out there, but I'm sorry," Shore added.

Electronic records are more efficient to collect, copy and deliver, he said, so "it's saving us time, and in the future it will save us money and give us a lot more transparency than we've ever had."

Florida court records are going on computers — but not online 09/16/12 [Last modified: Sunday, September 16, 2012 9:19pm]

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