San Luis Obispo Superior Court officials have shut down a public computer station that contained case data, citing privacy concerns, because certain information in the courts outdated system was exposed to background checking contractors, among others.
The recent closure of the public computer, containing court case records, has led to criticism that certain information that can be made public now is less accessible.
The court removed the terminal March 19. It had allowed searches of data such as criminal and traffic records.
Those seeking information about cases now must request information at the courts service windows at 1050 Monterey St., and there are limits on how many names at a time can be researched.
Court Executive Officer Susan Matherly said the database was set up initially to be shared by court staff and law enforcement agencies, and previous administrators allowed the information to be made public.
Legally protected data stored in the DOS-based system includes details on a persons age, gender and ethnicity as well as identities of crime victims.
Citing the California Rules of Court, Matherly pointed to concerns with the database and how case information was used by those seeking to sell it.
If a case that has been dismissed by the court against someone, for example, is used against them when theyre applying for a job, what kind of justice is that? Matherly said. One of the problems I have is that we just dont know where this information is going and how its being used.
Background checking contractors gather data, such as criminal background information, typically for the consideration by employers in the hiring process. Some were researching dozens of names a day, spending hours in front of the screen.
Local background checking consultant Judith Smith said her job follows legal guidelines. It involves submitting her information to employers who provide her with names of prospective employees.
Smith said she believes the courts decision was made too hastily and would like to have discussed the matter with officials before the computer was pulled.
My job is to provide accurate information and help employers make good decisions, said Smith, who operates JH Smith Consulting in Pismo Beach.
Job seekers have the chance to clear up any misconceptions that potential employers have about their backgrounds, including any dismissed cases, Smith said.
Like Smith, Stevan Rosenlind, a local private investigator, said he hopes to find a way to restore access to the local courts computer, saying he and others found the terminal invaluable.
But Rosenlind also acknowledged that he wasnt up to date on what can and cant be allowed in the system.
Ive had women who are being stalked want to check into someones criminal background, Rosenlind said. For those who couldnt pay for my services, Id tell them to go to the courts computer and look the person up. They may not feel as comfortable now making a request at a public window.
Balancing public access to information against privacy protections has been a challenge for courts statewide.
Certain drug charges, for example, are dismissed after a defendant completes a treatment program. And records of those convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana cant be kept on file longer than two years.
A planned, modernized statewide computer system that was 10 years in the making would have made Californias 58 county courts uniform in keeping records.
But last week, to the disappointment of the local courts top administrators, that project was shot down by the Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the courts. The council cited the systems costs that were expected to reach $2 billion to complete.
Matherly said the new system would have made tweaks simple to conform with laws and San Luis Obispo County was a pilot program for the project.
Court officials are looking into a new system that would be specific to San Luis Obispo County, though thats likely more than a year away from implementation.
After the Judicial Councils decision to kill the statewide case-management system project, Presiding Judge Barry LaBarbera said hes confident that the local court can develop a new plan to address our failing systems.