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States have made significant progress in putting their court records online, allowing the public to examine criminal cases, lawsuits and divorces. However, all are struggling to develop privacy standards that keep pace with the technology, says a report released Aug. 21. The Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology said states are trying to figure out how to balance the right to access public records with the risks of putting a battered wife’s address on the Internet or posting uncorroborated child abuse allegations for all to see. “It is clear that those concerns are out there and each state is trying to take a stab at addressing them,” CDT policy analyst Ari Schwartz said. Some states, like Florida, have gone so far as to consider placing a moratorium on online court records until they develop a policy. Florida has one of the nation’s most explicit open records provisions, a constitutional guarantee for access to public records. “There’s also, by the way, a constitutional right of privacy right next to it. So we’re not sure what the two of them mean together,” said Steve Henley, who handles such matters for the Florida Supreme Court. According to the report, every state in the nation puts their court records online and open to the public to some degree. But each state differs in its approach. Montana’s Web sites have a free, searchable database of Montana Supreme Court opinions and orders. Some courts in Alaska have listings of closed civil cases, probate cases (involving wills and estates) and divorce cases. California’s state court gives access to civil, probate and family law cases for a yearly fee, while county courts offer their own records online under varying rules. All of these court records can have unintended consequences. Some courts delete obviously sensitive data like social security numbers, but one could also find bank account numbers as well as a person’s name and address, information that could help an identity thief. There’s also information that is almost never sealed by definition, but could still be sensitive or embarrassing, like accusations of battling spouses in a divorce case or the names of biological parents in an adoption. Victim’s rights advocates have called for taking spousal abuse and family law cases off-line to respect the privacy of a battered wife or abused child. The wife’s address, frequently found within court documents, could help a stalker. “That could have life-threatening ramifications,” said Martha Steketee of the National Center for State Courts. Steketee’s group, a nonprofit organization designed to help states devise judicial policy, is behind one of a handful of state and federal efforts to address the online records problem and write guidelines. The center is finalizing its recommendations, and plans to release a report in October. Meanwhile, states are left to work out the problems on their own, Steketee said. “Courts are at wide and varying extremes with this,” Steketee said. “There are some courts that have tried putting up huge amounts of information, and some have stopped putting out any information electronically.” Most states are in Florida’s position. Henley, the Florida official, had a simple answer. “Without a statewide policy, we essentially have 67 policies,” he said. Privacy advocates and state officials don’t expect the issue to be resolved overnight, but they hope that greater awareness of the problems will bring some standards. “Even judges and lawyers in the system don’t realize the extent and the nature of the personal information contained in court filings,” Henley said. “Everything that goes on in society to some extent ends up in court.” Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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