Access to Public Court Records in California Threatened by Proposed Search Fee in Trailer Bill

In a move that could significantly limit access to public court records, a trailer bill written by the California Administrative Office of the Courts proposes to charge a $10 fee on nearly every court file requested by members of the general public – including journalists and court researchers who review a large amount of files for news stories and background checks – according to an article on the Courthouse News Service website. The article is available at http://www.courthousenews.com/2013/03/13/55701.htm.

Courthouse News Service reports the new court file fee is part of ‘trailer bill,’ described as “legislation that rides in the wake of the overall budget bill and receives little public deliberation.” Trailer bills have “been used by the court administrative office in the past and brought intense controversy within the judiciary.” The language imposing the new fee was sent by the court administrative office to the Department of Finance, who then sent to the Legislature as “a bill that is hooked to the budget.”

According to language in the trailer bill, a $10 fee would be applied for “each name, file or other information for which a search is requested” with the sole exception being when a “person requests one search for records of a case in which that person is a party.” The trailer bill language would amend a section of the state government code that applied a $15 fee for court searches that took over ten minutes, a fee rarely invoked because retrieving a file usually takes less than ten minutes, Courthouse News Service reports.

Specifically, the Trailer Bill Language for Fiscal Year 2013-14 includes the following under ‘Section 2. Search Fees’:

  • Description of the Proposal: Current law provides a $15 fee for a search for records or files when the search requires more than 10 minutes of court clerk time. Courts have noted for the last several years that allowing the fee only for searches requiring more than 10 minutes has proven troublesome in practice. It is common practice for data miners and others to request a large number of files at once. Can the court charge at all, for example, if each file takes less than 10 minutes to retrieve? Is the court’s time being properly compensated if the court may only assess one $15 fee when the requester is asking for 50 or more files? These questions have caused considerable confusion. This proposal would clearly address those questions and more properly account for labor costs involved in retrieving files, especially when there are requests by data miners for large numbers of files.
  • Statutory Change: Government Code section 70627(c) would be amended to read: (c) The fee for a search of records or files conducted by a court is ten dollars ($10) for each name, file, or other information for which a search is requested. This fee shall not be charged when a person requests one search for records of a case in which that person is a party, but if the party requests more than one search at a time, $10 shall be charged for each search after the first search.
  • Fiscal Impact: The amount of revenue this proposal will bring in is impossible to estimate. However, it will better account for court costs in retrieving files, which was the intent of the fee.

The complete Trailer Bill Language the Department of Finance intends to include for Fiscal Year 2013-14 is available at http://www.courthousenews.com/2013/03/13/DOF%20Appvd%20Efficiencies.pdf.

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Sources:

http://www.courthousenews.com/2013/03/13/55701.htm

http://www.courthousenews.com/2013/03/13/DOF%20Appvd%20Efficiencies.pdf

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