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Josh Bergeron: Court records remain one of last holdouts for free, online criminal justice information

When so much of the criminal justice system is accessible to the public and news media online for free, detailed district and superior court records remain one of the holdouts.

Curious who’s been booked into jail and what for? The Rowan County Sheriff’s Office provides a list online that can be sorted by intake date. Charges accompany each inmate’s booking. You can find it at ossip2c.rowancountync.gov/p2c/, where there is other information about arrests of people who posted bail and crimes that did not require a stay in jail. The same website includes an active wanted list, the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office most wanted list and other information.

The Salisbury Police Department has a similar website at p2c.salisburync.gov.

Want to know when court cases are scheduled in the immediate future? That’s posted online at nccourts.gov/locations/rowan-county. Look for links to criminal and civil dockets. The website currently has civil calendars posted through July 19 and criminal calendars through July 26.

If 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 previously locked up. The State Highway Patrol has a search portal for car crashes, too.

To find out the status of a case after its day in court, though, you’ll need to physically go to the courthouse because detailed information is not readily available to the general public online. Most frustrating is that looking up documents involves using computers in the courthouse. Why can’t those same systems be made available to the general public online for free? While the N.C. Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court deal with far fewer cases than the local courthouse, they post opinions and orders online for free public viewing.

For a fee, people can sign up for remote access to criminal and civil information from all 100 North Carolina county district and superior courts. The Post isn’t a user of the system, but the fees seem reasonable for people who require regular access. It’s $495 for a one-time setup, which comes with two user IDs, and $70 for each additional user. The cost of 21 cents per transaction, which comes with a definition on the N.C. Judicial Branch’s website about specific keystrokes generating a charge. Bills are sent out monthly.

Compare that to a system like PACER, the federal government’s portal for court records. It’s 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 just checking on big cases, it’s hard to exceed that number.

A spokesman for the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts said there are no ongoing projects to replace the current system.

This seems like a problem for a select few until it’s personally important to view court records. It’s important that the steps of the criminal justice system are easily accessible to the public.

I’m not under the illusion that making this change would be quick and easy for courthouses across the state. Questions about logistics and funding could take months in a state legislative committee or in state government staff meetings. But if state government alone cannot make the transition, North Carolina isn’t short on private-sector or academic expertise on how to complete such a project.

I realize, too, that accessing court records cannot be free for all, particularly law firms or high-volume users. With a system similar to federal courts, however, the state of North Carolina could waive fees for people who do not exceed a certain dollar amount every month, quarter, six months, year or any time frame deemed appropriate.

Salisbury and Rowan County are not unique in that almost every aspect of the criminal justice system is freely available for public viewing, and it’s good that so much of the process is relatively transparent, but there’s always further to climb in pursuit of transparency.

If one of Rowan County’s state legislators are looking for an ambitious project to take on, improving online access to district and superior court records is as good as any.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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