Josh Bergeron: Court Records Remain One of the Last Deniers of Free Online Criminal Justice Information – Salisbury Post
With so much of the criminal justice system available to the public and the news media online for free, detailed records from the district and high courts remain one of the objectors.
Curious who is in jail and what for? The Rowan County Sheriff’s Office provides an online list that can be sorted by date of admission. Fees accompany each occupant’s booking. It can be found at ossip2c.rowancountync.gov/p2c/, which has more information on arrests of those on bail and non-prison crimes. The same website has an active wanted list, Rowan County Sheriff’s Office Most Wanted List, and other information.
The Salisbury Police Department has a similar website at p2c.salisburync.gov.
Do you want to know when there will be legal proceedings in the near future? This is published online at nccourts.gov/locations/rowan-county. Look for links to criminal and civil litigation. The website currently publishes civil calendars until July 19 and criminal calendars until July 26.
When you visit ncdps.gov/dps-services/crime-data/offender-search, the state provides an easy-to-navigate portal for people who are active inmates or who have been previously incarcerated. The State Highway Patrol also has a car accident search portal.
However, to find out the status of a case after the day in court, you need to physically go to the courthouse as detailed information is not readily available to the public online. Most frustratingly, looking up documents requires the use of computers in the courthouse. Why can’t these systems be made available online to the general public free of charge? While the NC appeals court and state Supreme Court handle far fewer cases than the local court, they post opinions and orders online for free public viewing.
For a fee, individuals can register for remote access to criminal and civil information from any of North Carolina’s 100 district and high courts. The Post is not a user of the system, but the fees seem reasonable for people who need regular access. It costs $ 495 for a one-time setup that comes with two user IDs and $ 70 for each additional user. The cost of 21 cents per transaction included with a definition on the NC Judicial Branch website of certain keystrokes that incur a charge. Invoices are sent monthly.
Compare that to a system like PACER, the federal government‘s portal for court records. It costs 10 cents per page, but the cost is free if users spend $ 30 or less in a quarter (three months). For infrequent users or news outlets who only review large cases, this number is hard to go over.
A spokesman for the courts’ NC administrative bureau said there were no ongoing projects to replace the current system.
This seems to be a problem for a few until it becomes personally important to consult court records. It is important that the steps of the criminal justice system are easily accessible to the public.
I’m under no illusion that this change would be quick and easy for courts across the state. Questions about logistics and financing can take months in a state legislative committee or in employee meetings of the state government. But if the state government alone can’t make the transition, North Carolina is not lacking in private or academic expertise on how to complete such a project.
I also understand that access to court records may not be free for everyone, especially law firms or high volume users. However, with a system similar to the federal courts, the state of North Carolina could waive fees for individuals who do not exceed a certain dollar amount each month, quarter, six months, year, or any reasonable period of time.
Salisbury and Rowan Counties are not unique in that almost every aspect of the criminal justice system is open to the public, and it is good that so much of the process is relatively transparent, but there are still more steps in the pursuit of transparency.
If any of Rowan County’s lawmakers is looking for an ambitious venture, improving online access to district and high court records is as good as any other.
Josh Bergeron is the editor of the Salisbury Post.