Courts grapple with guarding of personal information

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Sometimes obtaining personal information doesn’t require a high-tech path. Or even a low-tech one. Just a trip to the courthouse.

In July 2015, Taos Mayor Dan Barrone was stopped for speeding by a state cop and issued a speeding ticket. Barrone pleaded “no contest” to the minor infraction, and the case was dismissed.

But like thousands of people cited for all kinds of crimes across the state, that small citation made access to much of Barrone’s personal information surprisingly simple. And according to officials, it’s all perfectly legal.

The Taos News went to Taos County Magistrate Court this week and asked to see the file on Barrone’s speeding ticket. The mayor’s Social Security number, date of birth, address and his signature were included in the file. No one flinched when a reporter snapped photos of the records with her smartphone, handed the file back to the clerk, then left.

Barrone said he didn’t realize his information was available to the public until The Taos News called him to verify the personal identifiers from his previous traffic ticket.

“It doesn’t feel good,” Barrone said when a reporter read him the details over the phone. “It’s kind of an invasion of privacy for someone to be able to walk in and get my Social Security number and signature. That is a problem to me.”

“They need to change that,” he said.

Easy access

Detailed personal information — especially Social Security numbers and birth dates — can be valuable to identity thieves who can use the information to steal money and cause all sorts of financial havoc. But when it comes to protecting personal privacy, the dilemma for New Mexico governments, including law enforcement agencies and the courts, is balancing reasonable access to public records with the cost and time involved in redaction.

Court records, for example, are almost always accessible to anyone who asks to see them.

Civil and criminal case files for district courts across the state can be reviewed without charge at a computer terminal at the courthouse in Taos. In magistrate court, the clerks provide files to anyone who requests them. In Taos, those records frequently include sensitive personal information.

“I have had people complain directly about having to provide personal information,” Taos County Magistrate Judge Jeff Shannon told The Taos News.

Barry Massey, communications officer of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, told The Taos News there is no law requiring the removal of personal identifying information from court records, but it is recommended.

“The rules of criminal and civil procedure instruct attorneys and the parties to avoid including protected personal identifiers in court records,” Massey wrote in an email.

But if they don’t, the courts aren’t obligated to redact the information themselves.

Massey said records with personal identifying information are not accessible to the public on the judiciary’s website. Until a few months ago, the website did allow access to civil district court records from any computer with an internet connection.

The state’s open records law does say records with personal identifying information “shall not be made available on publicly accessible websites operated by or managed on behalf of a public body.”

Massey argued the database of court records accessible by a computer terminal at the courthouse was not a “website.”

Up to the agency

Similarly, public records that aren’t held by the courts, but by other government bodies, such as towns and counties, may include sensitive personal information. Again, it’s up to the individual government to decide if it will redact personal information. It only has to redact records that are put online.

James Hallinan, spokesman for the New Mexico attorney general, said the state Legislature saw a difference between accessing these kinds of records from a computer in your living room and accessing court records at the courthouse.

“In enacting this law, the Legislature viewed a difference between taking the additional steps of making a request through [the state open records law], or physically going into a court office, as different than merely placing protected personal identifier information on the web,” said Hallinan.

Still, Massey with the state judiciary said the courts are trying to find ways to protect privacy, not only in digital court filings, but in the “millions” of paper records that already exist.

Cost, Massey said, is a factor in whether that gets done.

“Using redaction software to protect personal identifying information in electronic court records is expected to cost more than $1 million, with some costs recurring annually,” Massey said. “How to pay for that redaction is under consideration, but it’s a fiscal challenge as the courts and all of state government struggle with a budget squeeze.”

But Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says her organization supports open access to public records, but also sees the need to protect people’s privacy.

“There’s always that tension between what information of a personal nature needs to be kept confidential and what information needs to be made available to the public,” Boe said. “We believe that public bodies, including the courts, need to do whatever it takes to keep that information confidential.”

J.R. Logan contributed to this story.

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