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County court cuts public database access

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In response to a barrage of questionable activity by a small army of private background investigators, officials with the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court have decided to limit public access to their criminal databases, according to Court Executive Officer Susan Matherly.

The public will continue to have access to information on local criminal cases and court cases, but requests will be handled in person at the main criminal desk, requiring inquirers to provide specific information on the defendant before any records will be released. Such records could previously be accessed at remote computer stations.

In addition, those requesting information will be limited to 10 requests per day.

The concern, Matherly said, is that the databases may contain too much information, and the court has no way of controlling how that information is used. There are questions whether background checkers are “data mining,” or collecting and copying the court’s database to sell to private companies and government agencies.

Oversight on these services is virtually non-existent.

Matherly said, in some cases, court staffers have been approached by people identifying themselves as federal investigators, demanding that fees for copies and other services be waived, as is traditionally done for law enforcement.

Jack Papp with USIS, a private contractor which provides background checks, said he would not comment on local court policy, but did not answer questions regarding USIS’ policies, either.

Since Matherly made the decision to remove the computers, she said has been hit by e-mails from clients of local background checkers from as far away as the East Coast.

San Luis Obispo-based background checker Judie Smith, who has spent at least two hours a day at the courthouse computer since January, told New Times she believes the new policy is unlawful. At the very least, it’s hindered her ability to do her job, she said.

“From my perspective, I would have been more cautious in making a decision until I have all the facts,” Smith said. “This whole situation is terrible; terrible for everybody. I’m just trying to do my job.”

Matherly said that in many cases, such as drug-deferment program cases, the database doesn’t provide the whole story, and such could affect a person’s ability to get a job, or even violate laws protecting confidential medical records.

There are a number of pending civil cases concerning public access to court records in California, Matherly added.

“I’m not trying to cut into anyone’s livelihood,” Matherly said. “This is a privacy issue. I don’t know what these background checkers are doing, who they’re selling it to, and if the information they’re getting is accurate. … They’re kind of spoiling it for everybody.”

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