If it greases the court

Monetized court website gives new meaning to 'freedom of information'

As a poor journalist, I’m predisposed to dislike the Sacramento Superior Court’s decision to charge people to access public information online.

The court’s website has been a quick, reliable and free resource for ages, allowing anyone to search criminal court histories by defendants’ names, and research civil and probate cases. It’s also provided relief to a records division that suffered staff cutbacks during the recession.

Much of that is going away. Starting July 1, the website will charge $1 a name, or $2,500 a year for a yearlong search subscription. Civil or probate filings will cost a buck per printed page, or a maximum of $40 per document.

Meanwhile, a much larger, federal-court document database—Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER—restricts itself to charging a whopping 10 cents per page.

The California Public Records Act permits public agencies to recover only the costs of duplicating a record or a modest statutory fee set by the state Legislature. But the courts and Legislature are exempt from the act.

Superior court officials say they need this money to offset years of budget cuts and pay for the tech upgrades that will help improve other services, like digitizing the issuance of restraining orders. Additionally, judges said they will eventually be able to access information about families with separate cases in adult, juvenile and family courts to better serve them. “It could allow us to be more creative,” said Judge Alan G. Perkins. “At some point, somebody has to pay for it.”

Maybe so, but at such a high markup?

Paladin Private Security vice president Matt Carroll quibbles whether the expense was required in the first place. He argues that the court went from hosting an open-source website to adding credit-card authorization tools and other bells and whistles that don’t provide new services, just public blockades. “They’re creating a cost that was not there last week,” he said. “Is that a cost recoup or a profit?”

Court officials say they’re forbidden from profiting, and will adjust fees if they prove to bring in more than the website needs. As for me, I’ll be spending a lot more quality time with my pals in the records office. Hope they’ve staffed up.