Staff cutbacks and a new website force Sacramento Superior Court to charge for public data
Critics label the decision a ’huge hurdle' to public access
In a move with broad implications for government watchdogs, crime victims, defendants and their families, the Sacramento Superior Court will begin charging people to search its website for cases using a defendant’s name.
The previously free service allowed the public to access basic information about an individual’s court history—including charges, pleas and sentences—without knowing a specific case or reference number.
The fees, which go into effect on July 1, would charge up to $1 for every name users attempt to look up, or $2,500 for a one-year subscription. (There’s no refund if a search turns up no results.) Critics say the charges will block those who can’t afford them from a valuable public safety tool.
“What’s the public-safety cost of that?” said Matt Carroll of Paladin Private Security, which has contracts with multiple property districts throughout Sacramento County. “You’re cutting off at the knees hundreds of community members.”
Carroll said the company’s security guards use the database 20 to 40 times a day to run basic background checks on the people they contact and inform law enforcement if there are outstanding warrants. “We use the heck out of it, to the point that we programmed it into our infrastructure,” he said.
So do property managers looking to screen prospective tenants, as well as local residents hoping to vet renters, baby sitters, even romantic interests, said Carroll. “It was such an efficient tool to have out there,” he lamented.
Court officials defended the new fees as the price of bringing the website into the 21st century. “This is not a moneymaking venture,” said the court’s chief technology officer, Heather L. Pettit. “It’s purely cost recovery.”
The court unveiled its new “public access site” on April 7. Aside from monetizing defendant name searches, the site boasts several new features. Users can subscribe to specific civil, probate and, eventually, criminal cases; receive email alerts when new court documents are filed; and download full case files, rather than struggle with oversized binders and copy machines at the courthouse. Family-court documents and other privileged matters would be accessible only to case participants, not the general public.
The document-download service also comes with a price tag, however. Downloads will cost $1 per page for the first five pages, then 40 cents for each additional page, topping out at $40 per document.
Pettit said case participants would have 72 hours to download their documents for free.
Taken together, Sacramento Superior Court proposes charging more for its electronic data than superior courts in Alameda, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. It’s also more expensive than the federal court system’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER, which charges 10 cents per printed page.
During an interview last week in judge’s chambers, Pettit and three superior court justices said the technology upgrades promise increased efficiency for a court system that has shed 30 percent of its personnel since 2008. Family law, especially, had gotten so backed up that scalpers were selling tickets to people waiting in line, said Kevin R. Culhane, assistant presiding judge. “The thought is ’online rather than in line,’” he said.
Judges can now immediately issue and retrieve digitized protective orders from the bench, rather than engage in a weeks-long process that ends with hard-to-read scribbles on flimsy carbon-copy stock.
As for why the court decided to levy fees for the once-free name search, officials said it’s because it’s the most-trafficked portal on the court’s website, averaging 50,000 searches a month. “It would be nice to not charge the way we haven’t been charging,” said Judge Alan G. Perkins.
The California Newspaper Publishers Association has yet to take a position on the matter, but CNPA general counsel Jim Ewert said the court’s budget setbacks make it difficult to say it “shouldn’t charge for that value-added service.” Still, he wanted to make sure the fees were revenue neutral and expressed privacy concerns about the new requirement to set up user accounts. “That gives me pause,” he said.
Paladin’s Carroll also challenged the notion that name searches are still free at the courthouse. “You know what’s not free?” he said. “Parking.”
Carroll added that the courthouse’s location, limited hours and records staff represented obstacles to the average citizen, especially those with trans portation issues or limited resources. “This is a huge hurdle to public disclosure and public access,” he said. “If I say I’m going to give you a free meal, but you have to climb Mount St. Helena to get it, that’s not free.”
If the new fees generate more than the $836,440 annual cost of maintaining the website, Pettit said the court will reduce them, as it’s required to by the California Rules of Court.