By Monivette Cordeiro
Although the Florida Supreme Court lifted the moratorium on electronic access to court records in March, it might be awhile before people can view Alachua County court records on their personal computers at home.
The Alachua County Clerk of Court’s Office is currently sorting through the rules about who gets access to what online records and requirements for the electronic records access system, said Marynelle Hardee, assistant court director for the civil department at the clerk’s office.
The Supreme Court sent Florida clerks a complex spreadsheet of rules detailing what level of access each person or entity gets. Judges and court personnel have the greatest access and are able to see everything that has not been expunged or sealed, she said.
People involved in a case, attorneys and law enforcement officials will be given less access than judges but more than an anonymous member of the public. For confidential records, such as those involving sexual crimes, the public still will have to submit requests to the clerk’s office so the office can redact personal information from the documents under Florida restrictions, she said.
The clerk’s office does have redaction software that blacks out birth dates and Social Security numbers but doesn’t have software that can redact a victim’s name. Redactions like this will probably be done by hand, Hardee said.
Hardee said she can’t predict how long the entire process will take because the office is in the process of applying for Supreme Court approval of the electronic records access system.
“We have to ensure records are protected, and to do that we have to demonstrate that our technology is sufficient to provide different levels of security,” Hardee said. “It’s a painstaking process, as well it should be, because although we do want to make information public, we don’t want to make information available that’s not allowed to be released.”
Although the process is tedious for clerks, Hardee said Alachua County is better prepared because it is a mid-sized county. Large counties have a huge number of records to put online, while small counties face such issues as lack of funding and fewer personnel.
“Alachua County is very fortunate, and we hope this process will go smoothly, but it will depend on funding as far as how fast it happens,” Hardee said. “Everybody here is working together to make this happen.”
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said it will take all Florida clerks some time to get all the documents online and available. Several clerks told her that the lifting of the decade-long moratorium took them by surprise, she said.
Petersen added that she is questioning some of the access rules, such as those that don’t allow online access by the public to divorce records.
“I’m glad the court finally lifted the moratorium after it was in place 10 years,” she said. “Right now we’re trying to get our heads around the access security matrix and figure out exactly what the press and the public can and can’t have online access to.”