Tulsa County begins posting court documents online

New rules by the Oklahoma Supreme Court governing the use of personal information in public records is getting one of its first tests in Tulsa County. Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith has begun posting civil pleadings, criminals charges and other court documents on the Internet, she said. However, trial transcripts will not be placed online, Smith said.

Smith said her office began posting filings Dec. 15. With the exception of small claims judgments, documents filed before that date will not be placed online and will continue to be available at the clerk’s office, she said. Smith decided to begin placing images of documents online after the Oklahoma Supreme Court approved rules that clarified how identifiers such as birth dates, home addresses, Social Security numbers and other personal information should be dealt with in such filings. After initially proposing redaction of key identifiers, including dates of birth and home addresses, the Supreme Court reversed its own proposal Dec. 12, striking rules for redaction or partial redaction.

Facing pressure from district attorneys, the media and businesses that depend upon background checks for potential employees, the court significantly scaled back the rules. The new rules place the responsibility of redacting sensitive information on attorneys or other filers but it is not a requirement, records show. Criminal records are exempt from any allowable redaction, which means full birth dates and home addresses should be included on criminal filings.

Smith said she does not completely agree with the new rules, but she is abiding by them because they are sanctioned by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. “I don’t agree with it 100 percent,” said Smith, who has been court clerk since 1993. “But it’s not my job to agree with it 100 percent. The Supreme Court approved it, and I will follow it.” Smith said her qualm with placing more records online involved the identity of minor children not being protected under the previous rules. “Some filings have birth dates and Social Security numbers of children and that concerned me,” Smith said. “The documents are typically filed in divorce cases.” Smith said the unknown financial impact of documents being copied online rather than at her office also concerned her. “I am a little concerned about how much money we can lose in copies, but we will have to wait and see what happens,” Smith said.

Records that are required to be sealed or redacted by state law are also exempt from the new rule. Those records include juvenile records, adoptions and mental health records. The Oklahoma Supreme Court oversees the Oklahoma State Courts Network, an online network for criminal and civil filings in 13 Oklahoma counties and the appeals courts. Another network, On Demand Court Records, covers cases filed in nearly every other county in the state.

Before the new rules took effect, online records for Tulsa County gave general information about court filings but left out images of documents such as affidavits, pleadings, traffic tickets, divorces and civil lawsuit petitions. Smith’s office began placing imaged documents on OSCN, but numerous counties have been doing so for several years. Cleveland County Court Clerk Rhonda Hall began placing pleadings, affidavits, traffic tickets and other filings online in 2004, beginning with criminal filings followed by civil and divorce records, said Debbie Baker, second deputy. “Because of the large amount of scanning, we did it in stages,” Baker said. “We had a local rule in place that required the filer to redact any sensitive information.” Baker said that identity theft is not a common complaint. “Given the thousands of documents that we place online, there have been only a few complaints of identity theft, and there have been none that I know of that were proven or shown to have involved court records,” Baker said.

Oklahoma County Court Clerk Patricia Presley also began placing documents online in 2004, said Tim Rhodes, chief deputy. However, Presley’s office does not post images of criminal filings, including traffic tickets, due to a statute that prohibits public access to documents that might detail highly offensive acts, Rhodes said. “We want to err on the side of caution and not allow the posting of a document with language in violation of the law, which prohibits the online public record of an offensive act outlined in the law,” Rhodes said.

To search Tulsa County District Court records, go to www.oscn.net and click on “Court Dockets” and then click on “Search Dockets.” Choose which county you want to search, or search all at once, in the drop-down box listing counties that are part of the OSCN system. Users can search by name of party and can use the percent sign as a wildcard to capture variations in names.

Abbreviations before case numbers identify the type of case, including CF for felony cases, CM for misdemeanors, CJ for large civil cases and CS for smaller civil cases.

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