State wants to charge citizens to see public court records
Published: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 6:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 12:15 p.m.
Viewing a public file at the Santa Rosa courthouse will cost $10 under a proposal from the state's judicial branch that is drawing fire from critics who say it will limit access to public information.
The new search fee is among 11 recommendations from a panel of judges, lawyers and legislators that have been sent to the governor to be added to his budget.
They were offered as a way to offset $1 billion in cuts to the superior court system over the past four years that have closed facilities, brought longer lines and postponed courthouse construction.
Combined, the recommendations are expected to raise $30 million statewide. The search fee alone would generate $6 million, said a spokesman for the Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the courts.
"It's just another way of paying for the service that is provided," Sonoma County Superior Court's presiding judge, Rene Chouteau, said Monday. Chouteau was on a working group that drafted the proposals.
But the fee is under attack from open government advocates and some journalists who say it will create a financial barrier to public documents. Peter Scheer of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition criticized its inclusion in Gov. Jerry Brown's budget bill rather than in sponsored legislation as a way to limit opposition.
"This will alter and in this case diminish the scope of a personal right of citizenship," Scheer said. "It should not be done by trailer bill in the dark of night."
State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, also is opposed to the fee. Evans, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the state's courts cannot become a fee-for-service agency.
"Justice cannot be purchased," said Evans, who also sits on the Judicial Council but did not support the recommendation.
The fee is one of several recommendations, including a doubling of court copy fees, that were added to Brown's fiscal 2013-14 budget.
It replaces an existing fee of $15 for file searches that take longer than 10 minutes with a blanket charge "for each name, file or other information for which a search is requested."
Supporters said it targets people who ask for multiple files each day, including "data miners" who comb court documents for information they sell to financial institutions, large employers doing background checks and others.
Jose Guillen, executive officer of Sonoma County Superior Court, said it would apply to requests for copies of criminal complaints, sentencing reports, search warrant affidavits and a host of civil documents. Parties to cases would be allowed one free request, he said.
In an overburdened court system that already has been hit with cuts and reduced window hours, Guillen said something has to be done.
The governor has included it his budget proposal that is expected to be revised in May. But just whether it would be removed is unclear.
Evans said she is urging that it be dropped. Other opposition is coming from Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, a member of the Senate budget committee.
"It's part of the whittling away of the ability of the judicial system," she said.
The idea was met with concern by people doing business at the Santa Rosa courthouse Monday.
Victoria Stewart, who came from Columbus, Ohio to handle her father's estate, said it was too much money.
"Wow," Stewart said. "Ten dollars is a lot for someone to go into a file. California is already so expensive. It will certainly cut down on the number of people requesting information."
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.