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From waiting in line to online: Tampa Bay clerk's offices push court records to the Web

The days of waiting in line at the courthouse for records are rapidly fading into history as clerk's offices in Tampa Bay and across the state transition to posting documents online.

Clerk's offices in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco are at different stages of pushing records to the Web after the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that documents can be released electronically, making this state the first in the country to provide online access to most court records.

"It's going to be very interesting to watch," said Doug Bakke, chief deputy of court operations at the Hillsborough clerk's office. "Are we going to have an explosion of interest, or is it going to kind of mirror what we do today with foot traffic in the courthouse?"

Raising concerns about releasing confidential information like Social Security numbers, the state Supreme Court issued a temporary ban in 2003 on releasing most records online until proper redaction policies were created.

The court allowed Manatee County to conduct a public access pilot program for four years, which proved successful. The Florida Courts Technology Commission also created a set of standards followed by clerk's offices switching from paper to online while safeguarding sensitive information.

Two years ago, the moratorium was lifted and the technology commission began reviewing clerk applications. So far, 48 have been approved. Five other applications are being processed.

Clerks in Tampa Bay are providing two ways to records. The general public can use what's called anonymous access, which will show civil and criminal cases. Registered user access, which is also available to the public but requires a notarized form to obtain a login and password, will include other kinds of cases, like probate and family law.

The Hernando clerk of court is the first in Tampa Bay to launch public online access. Director of courts Susan Maggiorini said the office is receiving fewer walk-ins or emailed requests. Documents dating back to 2006 are online, but older records need to be requested.

"It does streamline some of our process for us," she said.

Some Pinellas court records are already available on county computers inside public view rooms in the courthouses, said Alan Hebdon, clerk's office project manager.

"This is exciting and we're very proud," Hebdon said. "It's extremely important to get this out."

More than 20 categories of information are exempt from public record. Under Florida law, clerks are responsible for redactions and can be held liable if something slips through the cracks.

As clerks move to online access, they will have to achieve the delicate balance of redaction while providing records in a timely manner. Under Florida law, public documents need to be released "within a reasonable time."

"When it works right, when it's speedy because speed is tied heavily to transparency, it could be a beautiful, beautiful thing," said Carol LoCicero, a Tampa attorney monitoring the changes on behalf of several media companies. Federal cases, she added, have been posted online for years, calling it "a wonderful tool."

Redaction should not fall on financially strapped clerk's offices and instead go to filers, like lawyers, LoCicero added.

"To have the clerks have this responsibility for redaction when there's always a money crunch is a huge monetary burden on the judicial system," she said. "What the system is doing is good. It's just got to be faster."

Each county is taking varying approaches to redaction.

In Pinellas, an automated software removes sensitive information, but there are additional safeguards. Some documents will be inspected by clerks. Some kinds of sensitive cases, such as sexual battery or human trafficking, will be manually redacted and available only at the courthouse. The public can also alert the clerk's office online if any documents still include confidential details.

In Pasco and Hernando, documents are examined by a redacting software and then inspected by staff.

"This is part of my promise to serve customers online, rather than 'in line,'" said Pasco Clerk of Court Paula O'Neil.

At the Hillsborough clerk's office, records will be posted online only upon request. Online users can click on an option next to the record listed in a case. Clerks will then work to post that specific document. Bakke said the time it takes to post a record online will depend on how many requests trickle into the clerk's office. For years, Hillsborough has posted records for cases deemed high profile, like death penalty cases, online upon request.

"If we have this onslaught of requests, we want to make sure that everyone of those is scrubbed," Bakke said. "Once you put it out there, it's kind of hard to unring the bell."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

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