Internet Prompts States to Revisit Open Records Policies
Before the Internet, public records were essentially private because of their obscurity. Now state governments are examining what information should be made public, or whether different rules should apply to electronic documents. Later this month, a coalition that includes the National Center for State Courts is to recommend guidelines for states drafting online policies.
By Liz Sidoti|October 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM
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Jim Moehring knows firsthand the pros and cons of making public court records available online. A general manager at the city’s hockey arena, Moehring has used the Hamilton County, Ohio, court’s Web site to check out potential hires. He’s even turned away a few because of what he found. But someone used the site to pull Moehring’s Social Security number and other details from a 1996 traffic ticket, opening seven credit cards in his name and charging $11,000. “It was absolutely terrifying,” Moehring said. “I got smoked in a bad way. The information is way too accessible.” That information is no different from what is found in public documents filed away, largely gathering dust, in courthouses around the country. Before the Internet, though, public records were essentially private because of their obscurity. Now governments are examining what information should be made public, or whether different rules should apply to electronic documents. Since the late 1990s, courts have posted various records online to manage cases more efficiently and provide easier access. But complaints soon followed. Crime victims, jurors and witnesses fear assailants can easily identify and find them. Others worry about identity theft. Reformed criminals want their pasts hidden, not publicized. Divorcees grumble that their neighbors now know their business. Though officials knew records would be made more available, “there was an underestimation of the impact that was going to have on the individuals whose documents now were online,” said John Bessey, a Franklin County judge and chairman of the Ohio Supreme Court’s technology committee. Later this month, a coalition that includes the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., is to recommend guidelines for states drafting online policies. The federal court system decided last year that documents in civil and bankruptcy cases — but not criminal cases — should be available electronically without personal information, such as Social Security numbers, birth dates and names of minors. The Florida Supreme Court, meanwhile, is considering a moratorium on online court records while lawmakers review a 2000 Florida law that requires courts to post by 2006 scanned images of all official records, including property documents and birth certificates. Beth Allman, a spokeswoman with the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptroller, said some of the 30 courts already posting the images also made civil and criminal case files available online. “The lawmakers then said, ‘Wait, is this what we really meant?’” Allman said. Other states, including Ohio, New York, Arizona and Wisconsin, have task forces studying the issue. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said any public information that is kept in a file cabinet should be available online. That’s why states may have to consider revamping open records laws now that court records have become “digital dossiers” of people’s lives, said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. “The answer isn’t simply turn off the Web sites,” Hoofnagle said. “The answer is to determine exactly what should be appearing in public records no matter how they are kept, paper or electronic.” Some fear lawmakers might use the Internet as an excuse to deny the public access to information offline. “I’m deeply suspicious of anyone tinkering with open records laws because they’re usually doing it for a specific, self-serving reason,” said Timothy Smith, director for the Ohio Center for Privacy and The First Amendment at Kent State University. The better solution, he said, would be to limit the amount of personal information that many public documents require. So far, the only bills introduced in state legislatures concern blacking out certain information, such as Social Security and credit card numbers, before posting documents online, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Jim Cissell, clerk of the Hamilton County court, said he was following Ohio’s open records law when he started posting records online in 1999. The site is considered as among the most comprehensive in the nation. Critics say he opened the door too widely, providing a gold mine for nosy neighbors and potential predators. Cincinnati divorce attorney Randal Bloch often hears complaints from her female clients. Most are concerned, she said, that criminals may surf the Web for names and ages of children, addresses and the layouts of their homes. She now asks judges to issue orders prohibiting her clients’ cases from being posted on the Internet. “People don’t have good intentions, and the county is laying a road map for them,” Bloch said. “It goes beyond stolen identity. It speaks to personal safety.”
Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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