Law barring personal info from court records brings delays

Published March 11, 2013

It seems like a reasonable idea: Before records in a criminal or civil case can be made public, Florida's clerks of court must purge them of all Social Security, credit card and bank numbers.

But in many of the state's 67 counties, that task has caused delays in the release of records that are available under Florida's public records laws. Even though many records lack such information, every file has to be screened to make sure it is free of personal information under a law that went into effect last year.

Delays in getting the court records can prevent information about cases from being released in a timely manner. This is important not only to the media, but also to people and businesses that need quick access to cases.

The Associated Press and newspapers throughout the state visited every county's clerk of court offices in recent weeks to see whether each is complying with the law and how much of a delay it is causing. The project, under the direction of the Florida Society of News Editors, was done in conjunction with this year's Sunshine Week, an annual initiative to promote greater transparency in government.

To test the effect of the new requirement, representatives from 31 news organizations requested to view the paper records of two civil cases and two criminal cases in all 67 counties. The cases were generally between a week and 6 months old. The organizations found:

• In just over half of all counties, there was a delay in retrieving the records — whether because personal information needed to be redacted, because the file wasn't yet in the clerk's office or because it couldn't be found.

• The need to review and redact a file of personal information led to some kind of delay in more than a fifth of the total records requested.

• Of the 61 files that required some kind of personal information to be removed, the delay was a day or more in almost two-thirds of the cases. In four cases, the delay was three days.

• In seven cases, no answer was given about how long it would take or a tester was told she would be contacted by the clerks' office when the redacting was done, but never was.

• In other cases, court records couldn't be retrieved because a deputy clerk was out with a sick child, a clerk's office employee said she was too busy to get them and, six times, computer problems prevented the records from being looked up electronically.

• The testers were asked in 18 counties to identify themselves, though that is not required under state law — the records are supposed to be available to anyone.

Although Florida's public records laws don't spell out how long it should take to release a record, courts have ruled that a record should be produced in no more time than it takes to retrieve it and review and redact exempt information, said lawyer Jon Kaney, who has chaired the Florida Bar's media law committee.

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"So the reasonable time to review a document looking for exempt numbers ordinarily should be a matter of hours, not days," Kaney said. "There is no allowance in the right of access for 'getting around to it.' "

The mandate that personal information be removed from court records went into effect last year during a period of major transition for clerk offices statewide. The 67 clerks of courts are required to convert to an electronic system by the end of this year, and the offices are in various stages of meeting that goal. The redaction requirement was added to protect privacy as files become available electronically and more easily shared.

"I think there are still growing pains here," said Jon Mills, a University of Florida law professor and former Florida House speaker. "The removal of personal information, things like Social Security and other things, we always knew that was going to be important, and not necessarily easy."

In Hardee County, computers that were meant for members of the public to view files electronically showed only the cases' dockets — the list of documents filed — but didn't provide access to actual documents. The media representative was told he could view the hard copies since the electronic versions were unavailable, even though he had been told minutes before that he couldn't view them unless he was an attorney in the case.

In the 31 counties where there was no delay, hard copies were available in 20 counties and the cases could be viewed only electronically by computers in the clerks' offices in the other 11.

Despite the redaction requirement, Social Security numbers were left in files in Calhoun, Columbia, Gilchrist, Hardee and Hernando counties.

As the clerks' offices transition from paper to electronic, many offer the ability to review both hard copies and electronic files. The clerks weren't given any extra money under the new law to comply with the requirement.

About $1.3 million was spent on redaction software in the Orange County Clerk of Courts Office, where the four court files were obtained electronically without any delay by the news organizations' representative.

It has been a greater headache at a time of major budget cuts in smaller counties. In the Panhandle, the Walton County Clerk of Courts Office spent $54,000 on software that redacts only the personal numbers. A staff member still must go through the file to make sure other information such as the names of juveniles or police informers isn't included.

Documents aren't automatically reviewed for redacting information when a file is created because prosecutors and public defenders need to see the unedited file, said Linda Warren, director of court services at the Walton County clerk's office.

When a public request is made, staff members must retrieve the files, make copies, read through them and cross out sensitive information. The redacted version is then reviewed by a supervisor. When the member of the public is done viewing it under observation of a staff member, the redacted version is shredded.

"It's a big burden," Warren said. "There is no choice but to redact after the fact."