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Results of Florida Society of News Editors’ audit of access to court records in Florida

Between Feb. 15 and Feb. 28, 43 reporters from 30 news organizations walked into 66 out of 67 of Florida’s clerks of court offices and requested two civil and two criminal court files. Hernando County was tested twice by two separate news organizations.

Of the 264 files we requested, in 136 cases we were able to view hard copies immediately. In 128 cases, there was a delay or we couldn’t view a hard copy.

Of the 128 files where hard copies weren’t available immediately, 57 cases had information that needed to be redacted, and in 52 cases only electronic copies on a computer were available to the public.  In 6 cases, computer problems prevented the tester from retrieving the electronic record and 5 cases weren’t in the system yet. In the case of 2 files (same office), the deputy clerk was out with a sick child and the files couldn’t be retrieved. In the case of 2 files (same office), the clerk employee said she was too busy to retrieve a physical file. The cases had been transferred to other courts in 2 cases. In a single case each, the file was in the judge’s chamber and the file couldn’t be found.

The delay to redact files ranged from just a few minutes to indefinitely. In 5 cases (four separate offices), the tester wasn’t given an answer as to how long the redacting would take. In 4 cases (same office), the tester was told he/she would hear back from the clerk’s office when redacting was done but was never contacted. The wait was three days in 4 cases, two days in 12 cases, and one day in 12 cases. For the rest, the wait was under an hour.

In 195 cases, the tester wasn’t asked to identify herself/himself. The tester was asked to identify herself/himself in 53 cases. With 16 files, the tester was asked if he/she was connected to the case.

In only 20 counties were the testers able to view hard copies of all four files without any delay: Bradford, Calhoun, Desoto, Gilchrist, Glades, Hendry, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Martin, Monroe, Okeechobee, Pasco, Seminole, Suwanee and Washington counties.

In 11 other counties, the testers were able to view all four files electronically without any delay: Bay, Citrus, Collier, Duval, Lee, Manatee, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia.

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