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Broward Clerk of Courts Scrambling to Comply With New Florida Public-Records Laws

For members of the public (including the news media), getting court files from the Broward County Clerk of Courts has been a somewhat arduous process in recent years. The clerk's offices are crowded and short-staffed, and members of the public need to awkwardly sign in on a clipboard while an overworked employee reads the clipboard upside-down to see what case files are needed, then shuttles back and forth to get old records delivered from an off-site warehouse in three to five days.

In recent years, the process got worse, as the state government cut clerks' budgets and staff was further reduced. Still, there was a bright side: If a court file was present in the building, you could look at it right away.

That has all changed now, as new Florida laws require the clerk to redact personal information from any file before it's handed over. Now, it takes a week to see files that are already there. And behind the scenes, the clerk's office is struggling to keep up with requests and with the new law. 

Several years ago, according to Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman, the state Legislature passed new rules requiring court files to be redacted before viewing, scrubbing out information like phone and social security numbers. Many other public records were already subject to such redactions.

"They kept delaying the implementation, and in the 2011 session, they said it would take effect as of January 1, 2012," says Forman. "Some of us were more eager to see it coming than others, but the underlying issue is identity theft."

Iris Siple, an administrator in Forman's office, says that some people still have full access. "If you are the attorney of record, you'll be able to see the nonredacted file. We're going to continue to allow parties to the case to see the nonredacted files."

Siple says the clerk's office is in the process of implementing a computer system that will someday provide digitized versions of court files -- and take care of redaction automatically. As it stands, once a file is redacted, workers place a green sheet of paper at the top. When new documents are added to the file, they go on top of the green sheet, until they are requested and, subsequently, redacted. The process currently takes days.

Siple says there's a staff of 20 to 22 people in a building across the street from the courthouse, temporary workers hired by the already cash-strapped department to comply with the new laws. "That's what they do all day long," she says, "copy and redact."

Overall, Forman is optimistic. "It's one big strike against the realm of identity theft," he says. "As we march down the road of going paperless, this is going to get easier."


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