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Better late than never: Online access to court files arrives in South Florida

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org clerkpage

Nearly two decades after the federal courts did it, state courts in South Florida and across the Sunshine State have begun to allow the public online access to documents contained in case files.

Unlike the federal courts, however, local court clerks in South Florida and other areas aren’t charging any fees to view, print or download millions of available pages of public records.

The Broward Court Clerk’s office was among the first to go fully online last month with free public access to electronic felony, misdemeanor, traffic, and civil court records not sealed, expunged or otherwise deemed confidential by law or court order.

“They’re available for free except for dependency, juvenile, adoptions – you know, family cases,” said Clerk Howard Forman. There is also no remote access to document images in cases governed by Florida probate rules.

For now, all users must register and log in to view the docket and document images during a 90-day pilot project. Once the state courts sign off on Broward’s system users won’t have to register and may view court records anonymously.

Miami-Dade Clerk Harvey Ruvin put civil cases only online last month. He did not respond to requests for comment.

In Miami-Dade, the county commission, not the clerk, runs the criminal record system and criminal cases are not online. “The county commission is supposed to finance their felony operation and they haven’t done it yet,” said Forman.

Palm Beach County Court Clerk Sharon Bock announced last week that a $2.6 million budget shortfall would indefinitely delay the implementation of online remote access to court records there.

What’s happening is the culmination of an effort that began in 2004 to develop technology and policies the Florida Supreme Court determined were necessary to shield sensitive personal information – like Social Security and charge card numbers – from anonymous, yet prying online eyes.

Court dockets have appeared online for more than a decade. More recently, attorneys have been required to file court documents electronically instead of on paper. New rules were adopted to require lawyers and pro se filers to identify and protect confidential information in their pleadings. A list of 20 exemptions subject to automatic redaction by the court clerk was also adopted.

A TIERED ACCESS SYSTEM

Years of study also led to the establishment of a tiered system of access to court records “to facilitate appropriate, differentiated levels” for judges, court and clerks’ office staff, “user groups with specialized credentials” like law enforcement and attorneys and the general public.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court opened the door to posting court pleadings online in an administrative order that adopted the new “access security matrix” and established the pilot program that allows clerks in Florida’s 20 judicial circuits to apply for approval of their local access systems.

Court documents in Broward undergo a thorough redaction process before they’re put online, officials said. It begins with an automatic redaction done by a special software filtering that locates, and blacks out, forbidden information like Social Security numbers. There’s also a manual review by clerks and submission to an audit that looks for statistical anomalies that might signal that exempt information wasn’t caught.

“It’s working very well,” said Ernie Nardo, the Broward clerk’s chief information officer.

The Broward clerk’s case management system, Odyssey, is provided by Texas-based Tyler Technologies. It cost more than $1 million to implement and another $435,000 in annual licensing fees, Nardo said. Another $230,000 a year goes to license redaction software from Apoka-based Computing System Innovations.

The court’s sensitive case files are not on the cloud, but remain stored locally on servers owned by the Broward clerk’s office, Nardo said.

While all new filings are coming in electronically, Broward clerks are today “back-scanning” older paper felony case files. “Those cases linger longer so we are going back to convert entire cases to electronic,” Nardo said. He said 2012 felony cases are in the process of being scanned, meaning that every case from 2013 going forward is now electronic.

There are no plans to go back and scan in other old, closed cases because the cost is prohibitive. However, the Broward clerk is thinking about providing on-demand back-scanning of cases for those willing to pay for it. Any files scanned that way would also be added to the online record.

Another project under consideration would allow individuals, for a fee, to track activity in cases by registering to receive alerts.

In Broward, the clerk’s office is also working on making its website mobile friendly.

“We are developing our website to be compliant with any phone out there. So it won’t matter what our phone is when you hit our site it would resize itself to that device,” Nardo said

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