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Fearing online dissemination of sensitive personal information, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead has issued an 18-month moratorium on posting state court trial documents on the Internet. “Current regulation of confidential information is minimal at best,” Chief Justice Anstead said in a statement accompanying the administrative order. “Because it will take time to develop a uniform policy, I am directing that bulk electronic distribution of court records cease temporarily.” The moratorium, issued Nov. 25, will have little impact on the information displayed on the official Web sites of most circuit courts around the state, including those in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. That’s because most courts currently do not post entire court files. The moratorium applies to such documents as motions, court orders, briefs, police reports, affidavits and complaints. The current information on most circuit Web sites, such as court dockets, court calendars, liens, deeds and title searches, are exempt from the moratorium, as are appellate filings, traffic court records and cases the chief judge of the jurisdiction designates as issues of significant public interest. “We have nothing on our Web site now affected by the administrative order,” Palm Beach County Clerk of the Court Dorothy Wilken said. But other clerks, notably Manatee County Clerk of the Court Chips Shore, had posted entire documents for traffic and civil cases, and planned to post filings in criminal cases. Since Anstead’s order, Shore has shut down his office’s Web site and has posted a notice advising visitors that he was disabling electronic access to court records pending legal review. “I hope to reinstate access within the next week if I am able to do so or if I should decide to challenge the order,” Shore wrote. “Thank you for your patience.” Justice Anstead’s order will temporarily affect how much access lawyers have to detailed court records on the Internet, and could affect the efforts by data aggregation companies to distribute court information electronically. Florida law requires the state’s clerks of the courts to have electronic images of documents on the Internet by Jan. 1, 2006. At least seven counties have placed some records online, but what is available differs from one jurisdiction to another. Entire court files eventually may soon be accessible worldwide, and that concerns privacy advocates and others. They worry that identity thieves could misuse information commonly found in court files, such as Social Security numbers, medical reports and financial records, to commit fraud. They also are concerned that the sensational but unfounded allegations sometimes in divorce and child custody cases will be widely disseminated and violate individuals’ privacy rights. “The problem is that in the rush to accommodate the public and data aggregating companies like Lexis-Nexis, some clerks are willy-nilly downloading public records in bulk without seeing if they include confidential information,” said Jonathan Kaney, a media lawyer with Cobb & Cole in Daytona Beach. Kaney is vice chairman of a new committee appointed by Chief Justice Anstead to come up with a statewide policy for distributing court information on the Internet while protecting privacy. PANELS URGED MORATORIUM Chief Justice Anstead’s order adopts the recommendations of two panels that studied the issue of Internet access to court documents. Two years ago, the Supreme Court-appointed Judicial Management Council, consisting of more than two-dozen judges, lawyers and court clerks, asked the high court to place a moratorium on posting trial records on the clerks’ Web sites until formal policies are in place. The council found that levels of electronic access to court records varied throughout the state and that the current form of regulation was inadequate to protect the privacy of Florida citizens. The advisory group asked the court to appoint a committee that would develop uniform policies on how circuit court clerks should place records on the Internet. In its report, the council recommended that the high court make sure that sensitive information found in court files was redacted before being posted on the Internet. After hearing oral arguments from the council in June of last year, the Supreme Court agreed with its recommendations but deferred action until it reviewed the findings of a legislative committee also studying the issue. In February 2003, the Study Committee on Public Records issued its report echoing the recommendations of the Judicial Management Council. The 22-member committee, comprising law professors, attorneys, judges and court clerks, also recommended a moratorium and proposed that the Supreme Court appoint another committee to create a standard process for distributing court file information. The panel recommended that the new committee study whether any information now included in court filings should no longer be required and report back to the Legislature any other data that should be covered by Florida’s privacy laws. The new committee also would determine who should be responsible for redacting confidential information from the court file before dissemination on the Internet. In his order, Anstead appointed a 15-member Committee on Privacy and Court Records to study these issues and report back to the court by July 1, 2005. CONVENIENT BUT DANGEROUS It’s only a matter of time until detailed court files are widely accessible on the Internet. In some places, they already are. In Miami-Dade County, traffic court records are completely electronic, and efforts have begun to place documents such as mortgage deeds and liens online. Broward is moving ahead with plans to let attorneys file motions electronically. Like the other two counties, Palm Beach County has an on-line docket listing parties’ names, attorneys of record and hearing dates. On Palm Beach County’s Web site, the public can also search for mortgages deeds and liens. Advocates of greater openness argue that having court records online is a great convenience. With electronic filing, attorneys will be able to file motions and briefs without leaving their offices, saving time, money and headaches. The benefits are obvious for nonlawyers as well. From a home or office computer, ordinary people could look up the status of their traffic citation — the charge, the court date and the amount of the fine. But identity thieves soon may be able to find a gold mine of useful data, such as Social Security numbers, medical records and financial disclosure forms for fraudulently obtaining credit cards and merchandise. Internet detectives with a vendetta against someone could disseminate sensational allegations in a family court matter, like charges of child or spouse abuse. Or there may be exploitable financial or personal items in a divorce file, such as names of adultery partners or medical expenses for diseases such as AIDS or drug abuse. Of course, such information is available now to anyone who visits the courthouse and knows how to research files. But it’s generally harder and more time-consuming to rummage through stacks of paper files than to conduct electronic searches in the comfort of home. The problem of balancing the right to privacy with public access is one being addressed across the country. Last year, the chief justice of New York appointed a commission to draft a statewide policy for electronic access to court records. In California, the Supreme Court recently issued a rule requiring all trial courts to post court documents on the Internet, then revised the rule to limit the information to docket and index data. “There’s a wide variation of what’s being done across the country,” said Sue Larson, a former public access consultant to the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va. “Several states have put a committee together to study the issue, similar to what Florida is doing now.” In most states, trial courts do not post case filings online, Larson said. The exceptions include the North Carolina Business Court and the circuit court in San Francisco. In most cases, the states are coming up with various ways to comply with privacy rules. In Washington, for example, family court rules require attorneys to file personal identifiers and financial information on a confidential document separate from the one that goes in the court file. Palm Beach Clerk of the Courts Wilken said her county will continue building its civil and criminal computer systems so the trial court records are ready for public viewing when the Supreme Court allows them to be placed online. But while the moratorium is in place, curious members of the public will have to drive to the courthouse to view case files, which often include highly sensitive personal information. “The paper records are still here,” Wilken said. “If you want to come by and see William Kennedy Smith’s criminal file, you can.”

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