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Wood County in no rush to post court data online

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Rebecca Bhaer

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BOWLING GREEN - Wood County Clerk of Courts Rebecca Bhaer doesn't want to be accused of reneging on a campaign promise, but for the time being she won't be putting court records online for the public to view from home.

A recent Ohio attorney general's opinion made it clear that Social Security numbers could not be splashed over the Internet. And while court documents are public records, many are peppered with Social Security numbers and other personal information such as bank and credit card account numbers.

Preparing the information to post on the Internet would be so time-consuming, Ms. Bhaer said, "I'd have to have probably six more people if I started redacting records."

She met with county judges last week to discuss the issue, and it was agreed that for now, going on-line is on hold.

Wood County officials plan to wait in part for recommendations from a committee created by the state legislature to study issues related to putting records on the Internet. It's a dilemma for courts across Ohio and the nation.

"We agree it's a problem and there's no easy solution," Ms. Bhaer said. "We're erring on the side of making records public in the office but not on the Internet."

Common Pleas Judge Reeve Kelsey said that while the records are subject to public inspection in either form, he believes there is a far greater opportunity for identity theft and invasion of privacy when the records are online.

"It's one thing to be able in the leisure of your home and knowing your neighbor is going through a divorce to go to Becky's Web site and pop their name in and find out all you can about them," he said. "It's a whole other thing to travel through a snowstorm and go to Becky's office and look at the records. There's that level of deterrence."

Judge Kelsey said he's less concerned about civil and criminal cases appearing on the Internet than he is about domestic relations cases, which often contain financial and personal family information.

"In this era of identity theft, that would be a fairly fertile field to get a lot of sensitive information about a couple going through a divorce," he said.

Butler County Clerk of Courts Cindy Carpenter was one of the first in the state to put all of the county court records online, including divorce cases. The clerk's office had begun a plan to completely automate its office in 1996 to save storage space, paper, and staff time in the growing county between Dayton and Cincinnati.

Then, in July, 2003, local judges ordered Ms. Carpenter to remove domestic relations cases from her Web site because of privacy concerns. The change meant those records were no longer available to the public.

"The form of the record has changed - it is computerized and accessible to people 24 hours a day conceivably from anywhere in the world - and the judges are simply uncomfortable with it," Ms. Carpenter said. "They were more comfortable with the previous scenario when you had to drive to the courthouse, walk up the steps, and go through security. They thought that protected people's privacy."

She doesn't buy the argument that putting records on the Internet violates people's privacy.

"Not that many people care," Ms. Carpenter said. "In the six years our records have been on-line, I've had six complaints."

Several clerks of court in Ohio, including Lucas, Hancock, and Sandusky counties, post on their Web sites the courts' dockets - a synopsis of happenings in a case, but not the actual records.

Ms. Bhaer said she could put the Wood County docket on-line, although she would first have to find a software package that would remove Social Security numbers from the docket.

During her run for re-election last fall, Ms. Bhaer's opponent said the clerk's office lagged in technology and ought to have more records and services available online.

Ms. Bhaer countered that the technology was in place to put records on the Internet, but she needed local judges' permission to do it.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.

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