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In big leap, Florida to become the first to put court records online

Published Mar. 14, 2015

Florida is poised to become the first state in the country to make the majority of its court documents available electronically.

With little fanfare, a state committee last week granted 59 counties' applications to put their records online. The change, which could take place as soon as this summer, would spare Floridians the hassle of having to visit a courthouse in order to access most court documents.

Instead, state and county officials said the public will be able to view certain documents wherever there's an Internet connection.

"Florida is light years ahead," said Bill Raftery, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts. "This would be the first endeavor of its kind within the state court systems of the United States."

Florida's open records law, one of the most liberal in the country, makes the state a natural candidate to experiment with online records. But progress has come haltingly.

Although clerks of court across the state have entered millions of records onto computers, little has been available to the public. In 2003, the state Supreme Court barred most court records from being posted online out of concern that confidential information, such as Social Security numbers, would fall into the wrong hands. Several years later, the court relaxed the rule for Manatee County, allowing it to serve as a test case for Florida's 66 other counties.

In the intervening years, some counties have given attorneys almost unrestricted access to online records. Others, particularly those far from the state's population centers, have kept their operations paper-based.

But with the moratorium on online records over, the Florida Courts Technology Commission has given most counties permission to begin making documents available electronically. Counties have roughly four months to roll out the software they will use to make the records public and begin a 90-day pilot program. Only six counties — Hamilton, Levy, Monroe, Seminole, Suwannee and Taylor — have expressed no interest in giving the public remote access to their records.

In Hillsborough and Pinellas, officials said it would likely be early fall before the public is able to view court records online.

This new level of access will come with the same old constraints. Documents relating to adoption or dependency cases, and all juvenile records, will not be posted online. And though many counties plan to use redaction software that automatically removes credit card numbers and other types of financial data, much of the safeguarding of protected information, such as victims' names, will be done manually by clerk of court employees.

There will be some new security measures as well. People who want to view family court documents, such as divorce filings, will have to sign an agreement promising not to use the information for ill purposes, and have it notarized — a higher bar to clear for anyone feeling nosy.

County clerks are also supposed to monitor requests for data mining and perform weekly checks to ensure that disbarred or suspended attorneys can't get attorney-level access to records.

"The stakes are fairly high," said Tim McLendon, an attorney at the University of Florida's Center for Governmental Responsibility. Whereas it has long been possible to go to the courthouse and obtain these records, the difficulty of doing so guaranteed most people a degree of what McLendon calls "practical obscurity."

"Now the records are not just open, they're open and available and potentially searchable," he said. "Once information is out, it can't be taken back."

For someone with a few traffic tickets, the change might be meaningless.

But Raftery wondered about the potential consequences for someone who was charged with a serious crime and acquitted, or had the charges dropped. What would happen if a potential employer looked up his court case and used the information to deny him a job?

"With that accessibility comes the question of responsibility," Raftery said.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

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