Access to Florida online court records varies by hierarchy

By: Mike Schneider

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s clerks of court are leading the nation in making electronic state court records available to the public online. But in the process, they’re creating two-tiers of public viewers with varying privileges based on how much information users are willing to provide about themselves.

Any member of the public will be able to look up most criminal and civil cases over the Internet anonymously in most Florida counties, once the clerks’ online records go live later this year. But to access probate and family court records online, people will need to submit a notarized application and get approval from the clerks’ offices. In a few counties, applicants will pay a subscription fee, but in most counties all they need to provide is information about themselves, according to plans being implemented by 59 of Florida’s 67 clerks.

As for the other eight counties, Manatee County already makes court records available online. Baker, Hamilton, Levy, Monroe, Seminole, Suwanee and Taylor haven’t submitted plans.

People can still make a trip to the courthouse to get probate and family court records anonymously, but subscribers who have provided information about themselves will have better online access.

“If you’re a subscriber, you get more information because we know who you are,” said Chris Blakeslee, who was an official with the Office of the State Courts Administrator until late February.

Florida’s clerks say they’re only following the Florida Legislature’s directive, and open records advocates agree.

“This is not the clerks’ choice,” said Carol Jean LoCicero, a Tampa attorney. “I think that those kind of cases should be open to public scrutiny the same as other civil cases, but we’re not going to get that.”

Family law records, for one, include sensitive information from divorce proceedings such as a family’s finances, said Circuit Judge Lisa Munyon in Orlando, who chairs the Florida Courts Technology Commission, which is supervising the clerks’ online records plans.

The classic argument against making those cases available online is that people then would snoop through their neighbors’ divorce case from the comfort of their home and find out about their finances and personal lives, whereas they wouldn’t make the effort to go to the clerks’ office to look up the same information.

Manatee County was the first in Florida to dive into making its records available online through a pilot program that has become a model for other counties.

Users can look up most civil and criminal court records anonymously and without charge. But in order to look up probate and family cases in Manatee County, a user must complete an application and sign an agreement in which they agree not to share their username or password, among other things. The application requires the user’s name, address, phone number, email address and purpose for using the online records system. The users are then given a log-in and password.

“The subscriber can see everything but expunged and sealed records,” said Lori Tolsdorf, director of courts for the Manatee County clerk’s office, who added that the only applications that have been rejected were ones in which users provided misinformation.

Florida’s counties are starting online systems that resemble Manatee County’s. Most will be running by the end of the year. In most Florida counties, judges and attorneys can already look up cases remotely.

“Most states don’t have anywhere near the level of access that Florida has,” said Bill Raftery, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Under the Manatee County model, judges, clerks and their staffs have access to all records, except expunged records, through an internal system. Attorneys of record and parties to a case have access to all records in their cases. Law enforcement and child welfare officials have access to mental health records, identities of sexual abuse victims, juvenile cases and other records that normally are off-limits to the public.

Subscribers have access to criminal, civil, as well as probate and family cases. Members of the public, using a site anonymously, have access only to criminal and civil cases.

Raftery said he knew of no other state using a similar hierarchal system.

A handful of counties — Leon, for instance — are allowing criminal and civil court records to be accessed online only by subscribers. Other counties, like Gadsden, are only making the most recent records available for viewing online since older records haven’t had personal information redacted. Older documents are available once they have been redacted.

The seven counties that haven’t submitted plans have different reasons. Some are in the process of adapting new software or coding systems. Others don’t have the money or personnel or are waiting to see how it works elsewhere. But those county clerks told The Associated Press they intend to make records available online eventually.

“It’s not like we don’t want to do it,” said Stacie Harvey, the clerk for Baker County on the Georgia line. “We will probably do it once we get funding for it.”

Until then, access to court records in those counties will be more difficult for the public, said LoCicero, the Tampa attorney.

“It’s not just for the press. It’s for people who have physical challenges, people who don’t have money to have a car,” LoCicero said. “Remote access helps a lot of groups.”