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Bill would cut electronic access to state's court records

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Bill would cut electronic access to state’s court records

  • The House and the Senate passed a new bill regarding the disclosure of information about individuals on the Internet.

March 11, 2003 — A bill, passed by both the House and Senate Feb. 27, would prevent significant amounts of information about individuals from being posted on court Web sites in Virginia.

The bill originally focused on land records, which frequently contain Social Security numbers, in custody of the clerks of courts. The bill’s supporters were concerned about the possibility of identity theft.

According to Forrest M. “Frosty” Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, the bill, which came out of the committee and subcommittee of the Senate with no opposition, provided for subscriber-only access with a mandatory fee for all Virginia land records or court documents accessed over the Internet.

However, at the last minute, Sen. William T. Bolling (R-Hanover) revised the bill because he was concerned, Landon said, about Social Security numbers being on documents, and wanted users to have a “purpose” for accessing the records.

The legislation, which would go into effect Jan. 1, 2004, now states that no court clerk can post on a court-controlled Web site any document that contains an actual signature, Social Security number, date of birth identified with a particular person, the maiden name of a person’s parent so as to be identified with a particular person, any financial account numbers or the name and age of any minor child.

“Because it was the last stage of the legislature, we didn’t have time to testify against it,” Landon said. “So all we could do was protest it.”

Landon added that as of now there is no decision-making power for the clerks of courts regarding someone’s “purpose” to obtain the information. The clerks cannot decide if a reason is good or bad, they just have to accept the purpose.

“The absurd thing about it is anyone with an evil purpose will lie to get the information,” Landon said. “It chills the rest of the world who might want to look at public records. It doesn’t solve any problems about identity theft and does create new problems for access.”

The bill states that each clerk of court will post a notice that includes a list of the documents routinely placed on its Web site.

Landon said he thinks the issues dealing with the mother’s maiden name and birth date are not significant. These items do not need to be removed from public records and are not associated with identity theft, he said.

Gov. John Warner has until Mar. 24 to sign or veto the legislation. If signed into law, the amendment would expire July 1, 2005.

(H.B. 2426) AT

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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