July 11--Members of the public would be able to access New Mexico court records any time of day from their computers -- instead of having to go to a courthouse during business hours -- under a plan discussed Thursday by a committee of the state judiciary.
Under the plan unveiled at a public hearing held by the state Judicial Information System Council's Public Access Committee, court staff, attorneys, law enforcement officials and others involved in the legal system would have free access to records, while others, including news organizations, bail bondsmen and the general public would have to pay for access to court actions and documents.
Individuals and businesses wanting such access would have to register with the state, but registration would be done online, said Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. This is similar to the federal courts' PACER system, which makes most court documents immediately available to registered users.
The cost for viewing or downloading pages hasn't been determined. Court officials have said they want it to be just enough to cover expenses. The PACER system charges 10 cents a page.
One big concern that was discussed -- but not resolved -- at the hearing was the issue of redacting certain information, such as birth dates and Social Security and driver's license numbers, in order to prevent identity theft.
"We have to have a good redaction program," said Appeals Judge Michael Bustamante. But that's not a cheap proposition, he noted. "The first number tossed out was $750,000 [annually]." Tyler Technologies, the software vendor that operates the Odyssey system used by New Mexico for its electronic court records, does not have its own redaction program. Instead, it contracts with a company called CSI, according to minutes from last month's meeting of the Judicial Information System Council.
But prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement officials and others who spoke at the hearing said their agencies should not have to receive redacted documents. Sylvia Martinez of the District Attorney's Office in the 2nd Judicial District in Albuquerque said prosecutors need Social Security numbers and dates of birth to verify prior offences of criminal defendants.
Having that information instantly available on the computer is important because having to call other agencies to check out records is inefficient, she said.
Mario Rodriguez of the warrants unit of the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office said officers on domestic violence calls need access to civil cases and protective orders. "We have access to that information during business hours, but after hours, our hands are tied," he said.
Gerald Madrid, who owns a bail bonds company, said bondsmen whose businesses are in good standing also should get unredacted documents. He got the biggest laugh at the meeting when he said, "If we wanted to steal identities, it wouldn't be our clients'."
Some who spoke at the hearing said the courts should go further in making access to records easier.
Cindy Walker, chief clerk of the 2nd Judicial District, said, "The public should have complete access." She observed that the records available to the public at courthouses never have been redacted in the past. "I don't think we have the right to limit it just because it's electronic."
Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, told the committee, "We don't want to diminish [the degree of information] we have now. " She said the computer-using public should have access to the same records currently available at the kiosks at courthouses. "Please don't give the public the short shrift."
FOG has been critical of Tyler's Odyssey system, which the Albuquerque Metropolitan Court began using recently. In a letter to the state Supreme Court last month, Boe wrote, "It is our understanding that as a result of the system change, most of the case records contained on the [previous computer] system will no longer be available online. As a result, years worth of public records will no longer be accessible to the general public on the Internet.
"Although the records may presumably still be available in some form from the Metro Court, that availability is not clear, and their removal from the Internet significantly restricts access to the public," Boe's letter said.
Pepin said the courts hope to implement their plan by early next year. "It depends on how fast Tyler can develop it," he said.
Contact Steve Terrell at email@example.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.
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