The Public Eye: New fees loom for online court searches in Sacramento County

04/13/2014 12:00 AM

10/07/2014 1:54 PM

Burdened by years of lean budgets, Sacramento Superior Court officials have decided to follow the lead of other court systems that charge the public for online access to court records.

The new fees take effect July 1 and can cost someone looking for court information anywhere from $1 to search one name in the database to $2,500 for a year’s worth of unlimited name searches. Accessing court documents will cost the public $1 per page for the first five pages and 40 cents per page after that.

Until now, anyone could search the court’s civil and criminal court files for free to obtain basic information in criminal cases such as hearing dates and outcomes, as well as pending charges, or get detailed copies of documents in civil cases.

Court officials say five years of budget cuts that trimmed their workforce by 30 percent forced the move, which is designed to offset the $836,000 annually that it takes to maintain the online access system.

“It’s been devastating for courts,” said Tim Ainsworth, interim court executive officer for Sacramento Superior Court.

Ainsworth said the new fees are designed to be comparable or lower than those charged by some other courts and that the goal is to provide much more access to court documents and, ultimately, to be able to offer online services for free again if court budgets are eventually restored.

Ainsworth and Heather Pettit, director of the court’s information-technology division, said there are plans to vastly expand what is available online by offering kiosks at various courthouses throughout the area that can provide access to all court information. Currently, individuals seeking information on a family-law case must visit the William R. Ridgeway courthouse on Power Inn Road to view a file, for instance, while access to a criminal file can only be seen by visiting the downtown courthouse.

The new system court officials envision will allow access to all files at kiosks at any court building, although that is still some time in the future. Criminal case documents are not expected to be available online for a year, but the new system is designed to offer other benefits, Ainsworth and Pettit said, including the ability to save documents an individual pays for on the site itself.

Not everyone is convinced that moving to a fee system is a step forward.

The decision inevitably will hinder public access to public documents, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based nonprofit aimed at improving openness in government.

California’s courts are “truly beleaguered” by budget cuts, Scheer said, but imposing fees to access court files “is a big step backward.”

“The courts have invested heavily in making all of this data available without a cost barrier to all the people of Sacramento,” he noted. “To now charge is to erect a pretty significant barrier for a lot of people.”

The move already is causing consternation for some. Although the fees don’t take effect until July, people wanting to use the site must sign up to get access, something Tom Hinkle discovered when he tried to get a copy of a motion in a lawsuit in which he is involved.

“It impedes people’s access to documents,” said Hinkle, who splits his time between Sacramento, the Bay Area and Nevada. “Our courts are supposed to be open to the public. We’re supposed to know what’s going on in court so we can keep an eye on that.”

Obtaining a copy of a motion he was seeking in his case would cost him $9 under the new system, Hinkle noted.

Court officials say there still is free access to court documents. Anyone can go to the courthouse at 720 Ninth St. and review court files in person for free, although budget cuts have increased wait times and caused the criminal division side where case files may be viewed to shut down daily from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.

Under the new system, attorneys or individuals representing themselves can subscribe to their cases and receive notifications whenever a new document is filed. Those documents can be printed for free for up to 72 hours in those cases.

But others who routinely use the online court system to research cases can expect to start paying for such access.

Some counties, such as Placer and El Dorado, still provide the ability to search for names of defendants for free, while others, such as San Joaquin, do not allow online access to most court files. Sacramento’s decision to begin charging is hardly unique.

Courts in other counties and the federal courts have charged for online access for years, and the fees vary widely.

The federal system, www.pacer.gov, allows users to sign up for an account using a credit card and gives users access to U.S. district, bankruptcy and appellate court files at a rate of 10 cents per page.

Los Angeles Superior Court also allows users to set up credit card accounts and charges $4.75 for the first search of an individual’s name, with a sliding scale for additional searches.

Sacramento’s system will use a similar pricing scale, with the first name search costing $1, five searches priced at $3.50 and 75 name searches costing $25.

State and federal agencies will be able to use the system for free, and the court is still accepting public comment on the planned fees through June 6.

“We’re open to suggestions and ideas,” Pettit said.

Comments may be mailed to the Court Executive Officer, 720 Ninth St., Sacramento 95814, or emailed to court-info@saccourt.ca.gov.

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